Critical Infrastructure Protection:

Federal Agencies Have Taken Actions to Address Electromagnetic Risks, but Opportunities Exist to Further Assess Risks and Strengthen Collaboration

GAO-16-243: Published: Mar 24, 2016. Publicly Released: Apr 25, 2016.

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What GAO Found

Key federal agencies have taken various actions to address electromagnetic risks to the electric grid, and some actions align with the recommendations made in 2008 by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (EMP Commission). Since 2008, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have taken actions such as establishing industry standards and federal guidelines, and completing EMP-related research reports. GAO found that their actions aligned with some of the EMP Commission recommendations related to the electric grid. For example, DHS developed EMP protection guidelines to help federal agencies and industry identify options for safeguarding critical communication equipment and control systems from an EMP attack. Further, agency actions and EMP Commission recommendations generally align with DHS and DOE critical infrastructure responsibilities, such as assessing risks and identifying key assets.

Additional opportunities exist to enhance federal efforts to address electromagnetic risks to the electric grid. Specifically, DHS has not identified internal roles and responsibilities for addressing electromagnetic risks, which has led to limited awareness of related activities within the department and reduced opportunity for coordination with external partners. Doing so could provide additional awareness of related activities and help ensure more effective collaboration with other federal agencies and industry stakeholders. Moreover, although DHS components have independently conducted some efforts to assess electromagnetic risks, DHS has not fully leveraged opportunities to collect key risk inputs—namely threat, vulnerability, and consequence information—to inform comprehensive risk assessments of electromagnetic events. Within DHS, there is recognition that space weather and power grid failure are significant risk events, which DHS officials have determined pose great risk to the security of the nation. Better collection of risk inputs, including additional leveraging of information available from stakeholders, could help to further inform DHS assessment of these risks. DHS and DOE also did not report taking any actions to identify critical electrical infrastructure assets, as called for in the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. Although FERC conducted a related effort in 2013, DHS and DOE were not involved and have unique knowledge and expertise that could be utilized to better ensure that key assets are adequately identified and all applicable elements of criticality are considered. Finally, DHS and DOE, in conjunction with industry, have not established a coordinated approach to identifying and implementing key risk management activities to address EMP risks. Such activities include identifying and prioritizing key research and development efforts, and evaluating potential mitigation options, including the cost-effectiveness of specific protective equipment. Enhanced coordination to determine key research priorities could help address some identified research gaps and may help alleviate concerns voiced by industry regarding the costs and potential adverse consequences on grid reliability that may be caused by implementation of such equipment.

Why GAO Did This Study

Electromagnetic risks caused by a man-made EMP or a naturally occurring solar weather event could have a significant impact on the nation's electric grid as well as other infrastructure sectors that depend on electricity, such as communications. These risks could lead to power outages over broad geographic areas for extended durations.

GAO was asked to review federal efforts to address electromagnetic risks to the electric grid. This report examines (1) the extent to which key federal agencies have taken action to address electromagnetic risks and how these actions align with the 2008 EMP Commission report recommendations, and (2) what additional opportunities exist to enhance federal efforts to address electromagnetic risks to the electric grid. GAO reviewed the EMP Commission report and federal program documents, and interviewed DHS, DOE, and FERC officials and relevant stakeholders who provided insights on key actions taken.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DHS identify internal roles to address electromagnetic risks, and collect additional risk inputs to further inform assessment efforts; that DHS and DOE collaborate to ensure critical electrical infrastructure assets are identified; and engage with industry stakeholders to identify and prioritize risk-management activities, such as research and development efforts, to address EMP risks to the grid. DHS and DOE concurred with our recommendations and identified planned actions to address the recommendations.

For more information, contact Chris Currie at (404) 679-1875 or curriec@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In a June 2016 update to our proposed recommendation, DHS reported that the Cyber, Infrastructure and Resilience (CIR) Policy Office within the DHS Office of Policy is working with DHS components to identify and articulate the roles of the National Protection and Programs Directorate, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Science and Technology Directorate, and others regarding to address electromagnetic risks. As part of this effort, CIR is to coordinate the development of a joint roles and responsibilities document to be communicated through existing partnership structures with internal and external entities.

    Recommendation: To enhance accountability for key risk-management activities and facilitate coordination with federal and industry stakeholders regarding electromagnetic risks, the Secretary of Homeland Security should designate roles and responsibilities within the department for addressing electromagnetic risks and communicate these to federal and industry partners.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In a June 2016 update to our proposed recommendation, DHS reported that the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) will increase collaborative outreach activities with FERC staff that will include a review of identified critical substations developed by FERC. The intended outcome of this review is to inform DHS activities regarding identification and prioritization of critical infrastructure assets for use during steady state and response activities. NPPD is also to inform FERC of its criticality modeling capabilities through the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC) to enhance engagement with FERC's electric power subject matter expertise and inform future capability developments regarding response to and recovery from events such as electromagnetic pulse.

    Recommendation: To more fully leverage critical infrastructure expertise and address responsibilities to identify critical electrical infrastructure assets as called for in the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of Energy direct responsible officials to review FERC's electrical infrastructure analysis and collaborate to determine whether further assessment is needed to adequately identify critical electric infrastructure assets, potentially to include additional elements of criticality that might be considered.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2016, DOE provided an update (60-day letter) reiterating their intent to continue with actions identified previously to address the GAO recommendation, namely that the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability was to review the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's electrical infrastructure analysis, and subsequently engage with FERC and DHS to identify if any additional elements of criticality should be considered.

    Recommendation: To more fully leverage critical infrastructure expertise and address responsibilities to identify critical electrical infrastructure assets as called for in the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of Energy direct responsible officials to review FERC's electrical infrastructure analysis and collaborate to determine whether further assessment is needed to adequately identify critical electric infrastructure assets, potentially to include additional elements of criticality that might be considered.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In a June 2016 update, DHS reported that the department had completed the planned refresh of the Strategic National Risk Assessment, which was intended to incorporate potential impacts to the power system from electromagnetic events. In addition, DHS reported that the Electricity Sub-sector Coordinating Council created an Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) task force, which met in April 2016 and is currently working to develop a joint industry and government approach to address EMP. It was further noted that DHS and DOE initiated a joint study on the effects of EMP on the electric power sector - led by Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC) - to analyze the hazard environments, impacts, and consequences of EMP and GMD on U.S. electric power infrastructure. In addition, DHS noted their support of a new effort by the Electric Power Research Institute and 39 industry partners to further study EMP vulnerabilities.

    Recommendation: To enhance federal efforts to assess electromagnetic risks and help determine protection priorities, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Under Secretary for National Protection and Programs Directorate and the Assistant Secretary for the IP to work with other federal and industry partners to collect and analyze key inputs on threat, vulnerability, and consequence related to electromagnetic risks--potentially to include collecting additional information from DOD sources and leveraging existing assessment programs such as the Infrastructure Survey Tool, Regional Resiliency Assessment Program, and DCIP.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a June 2016 update, DHS reported completion of key activities previously identified to address this recommendation, including (1) further engagement with DOE and the Electricity Sub-Sector Coordinating Council (ESCC) to develop a joint government and industry approach to addressing EMP, and (2) ongoing utilization of the DHS Science and Technology's process of Integrated Product Teams (IPT) to identify and pursue additional opportunities to address potential EMP research and development capability gaps. Specifically, DHS reported that the Office of Infrastructure Protection and DOE has worked with the ESCC to help identify and implement EMP research and development efforts. It was noted that the ESCC created an EMP Task Force in November 2015, which has received classified EMP briefings from DOE and is currently developing a joint government and industry approach to address EMP. In regards to internal department research and development efforts, DHS identified the existing mechanism within S&T by which government and industry partners could identify potential EMP-related technology gaps to be addressed. While no new EMP-related gaps were identified prior to the March 2016 deadline, DHS noted that the existing IPT process could be used to formulate future technology gaps, prioritize those gaps, and allocate resources to related projects to address potential EMP gaps. In a Sept 20th email, DHS S&T requested closeout of the rec and provided two documents confirming establishment of the EMP Task Force within the ESCC, and EMP briefings provided to partners and industry. Three documents were also provided to describe the establishment of the IPT process previously identified as the mechanism for DHS S&T to identify and prioritize EMP-related R&D projects. In addition to reviewing support materials provided by DHS, GAO subsequently obtained and reviewed the joint DOE/Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) EMP Strategy issued in July 2016. This strategy provides additional documentation regarding planned efforts by the ESCC EMP Task Force to identify potential mitigation measures that could be tested or deployed to address EMP threats. The Strategy also describes specific ongoing efforts by EPRI to provide further technical assessment of potential transmission system vulnerabilities and mitigation options, among other deliverables. These efforts are aligned with the intent of the recommendation and should help inform additional EMP research and development priorities. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To facilitate federal and industry efforts to coordinate risk-management activities to address an EMP attack, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of Energy should direct responsible officials to engage with federal partners and industry stakeholders to identify and implement key EMP research and development priorities, including opportunities for further testing and evaluation of potential EMP protection and mitigation options.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: On March 9, 2016 DOE provided agency comments on GAO-16-243 concurring with the recommendation and identifying related actions. Specifically, DOE reported collaboration with the Electric Power Research Institute to develop a joint DOE/Industry EMP Strategy to include key goals and objectives and identification of R&D priorities. The Strategy is expected to be completed by August 31, 2016 to be followed by more detailed action plans. DOE reported that they will collaborate with DHS and DOD in development of the Strategy and action plans. DOE further noted that a report by the Idaho National Laboratory report also identifies potential technology gaps and includes recommendations for further R&D efforts, which will be incorporated when developing the forthcoming action plans.

    Recommendation: To facilitate federal and industry efforts to coordinate risk-management activities to address an EMP attack, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of Energy should direct responsible officials to engage with federal partners and industry stakeholders to identify and implement key EMP research and development priorities, including opportunities for further testing and evaluation of potential EMP protection and mitigation options.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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