Top energy regulator warns of mass blackouts if a gas pipeline were attacked

The attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil facilities should serve as a wake-up call about the vulnerabilities of America's own energy infrastructure, the country's top federal energy regulator told CNN Business on Monday. CREDIT: Callahan OHare/Bloomberg/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities should serve as a wake-up call about the vulnerabilities of America’s own energy infrastructure, the country’s top federal energy regulator told CNN Business on Monday.

Neil Chatterjee, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, warned that an attack on even a single US natural gas pipeline could cause mass blackouts.

“An outage could really have significant cascading effects,” Chatterjee said in the interview. “And our adversaries know this.”

America’s electric grid is increasingly reliant on access to natural gas, which has replaced coal as the nation’s leading power source because of the shale boom. Although that shift to a cleaner burning fuel has helped the environment, it has also led to security concerns.

“Twenty years ago, a single generator might not have even flinched if a pipeline went down,” said Chatterjee, who was nominated to FERC by President Donald Trump in May 2017. “Today, we have eight or nine generators depending on a single gas pipeline.”

Those concerns have been amplified by the September 14 attack on Saudi Arabia, a country that spends heavily to protect its energy facilities. The drone and missile strikes on Saudi Aramco wiped out more than half of the kingdom’s oil production and briefly sent oil prices skyrocketing.

“It’s a real reminder about the importance of protecting our critical infrastructure,” Chatterjee said.

FERC, an independent agency run by bipartisan commissioners, is responsible for reviewing and permitting pipelines. The Transportation Security Administration is charge of maintaining the safety and security of those pipelines.

Concerns have been raised about the resources being devoted to protecting America’s nearly 3 million miles of pipeline carrying natural gas, oil and other hazardous materials.

The Government Accountability Office has recently identified “weaknesses” in TSA’s pipeline security program, including severe staffing limitations that prevented the agency from conducting security reviews.

The GAO found that the pipeline security branch employed just six full-time employees last year. That’s down from 14 employees in 2014, though it’s up from just one employee in the branch in 2014.

“Interstate pipelines run through remote areas and highly populated urban areas, and are vulnerable to accidents, operating errors, and malicious physical and cyber-based attack or intrusion,” the GAO said.

The GAO also found that the pipeline security branch has not updated its risk assessment on the top 100 critical pipeline systems since 2014.

“We’ve been working very closely with TSA asking them to commit resources and focus on defending our network of pipelines because it’s so critical to the reliability of the electric grid,” Chatterjee said.

In April, the TSA established a surface transportation security committee that includes several industry leaders focused on safeguarding pipelines.

Patricia Cogswell, the acting deputy administrator of the TSA, told lawmakers earlier this month that the agency constantly assists in conducting vulnerability assessments on pipelines and other forms of surface transportation.

“We must continue to work hard, but also need to work smarter, more strategically, and in innovative ways to stay ahead of the threat and remain a global leader in transportation security,” Cogswell said in testimony.

TSA declined to comment beyond the recent testimony.

Chatterjee said the biggest threat facing America’s energy infrastructure is the increased susceptibility to both physical and cyber attacks..

“Our adversaries know these are vulnerable targets,” he said.

Chatterjee urged regulators, power companies and pipeline operators to work together to stay ahead of these threats.

“We’re finding that in the 21st century, modern warfare has evolved to a point where private companies now find themselves on the frontlines,” Chatterjee said.

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