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U.S. Moves to Ban Use of Some Foreign Power Gear

Item posted by Stephen H. Dawson DSL <shdawson> on Fri 01 May 2020 07:30:13 PM UTC.

U.S. Moves to Ban Use of Some Foreign Power Gear
Timothy Puko

WASHINGTON—President Trump declared a national emergency for the nation’s power grid Friday, and signed an order to ban the import and use of equipment that poses a threat to national security if installed in U.S. power plants and transmission systems.

The move boosts U.S. efforts to protect the grid from being used as a weapon against American citizens and businesses, attacks that could have “potentially catastrophic effects,” Mr. Trump said in the order. While the order doesn’t name any country, national-security officials have said that Russia and China have the ability to temporarily disrupt the operations of electric utilities and gas pipelines.

The executive order gives the Energy Secretary more power to prevent the use of such equipment that is influenced by foreign adversaries or creates an “unacceptable risk to the national security.” It also gives the secretary responsibility over determining what parts of the system are already at risk and possibly need to be replaced.

U.S. officials will later determine what equipment is most at risk. But they will examine anything used at power plants and the nation’s transmission system, potentially including what goes into the grid’s transformers and substations, said a senior Energy Department official.

The move aims to shore up a potential vulnerability in a power supply that depends extensively on foreign-made parts. Officials are expected to use U.S. intelligence agencies’ threat assessments to help determine what equipment is most likely a risk and what may need to be banned, the official said.

Government agencies have warned repeatedly that the nation’s electricity grid is an attractive target for overseas hackers. The U.S. blamed the Russian government for a hacking campaign in 2017.

While some of these threats date back more than a decade, they have intensified in recent years. The fear is that U.S. adversaries could cut power and heat to U.S. consumers and businesses as an unconventional weapon, federal officials have said.

“It is imperative the bulk-power system be secured against exploitation and attacks by foreign threats,” Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in a statement. “This Executive Order will greatly diminish the ability of foreign adversaries to target our critical electric infrastructure.”

The administration is taking action specifically because of those prior efforts to infiltrate U.S. electric and natural-gas systems, which intelligence agencies say they have linked directly to Russia and China, the official said. The process will help determine which countries pose the highest risk.

The administration’s risk assessments from the past two years have pointed to power plants and the transmission grid as the most vulnerable parts of the electricity system, leading the administration to focus action there, the official said.

Under the president’s order, the Energy Secretary will work within the administration to set criteria for what power companies can safely purchase from international vendors. The secretary will create a task force to establish procurement policies and possibly a process for prequalifying international vendors to sell products for U.S. systems.

The power industry’s supply chain has been a growing problem for about 15 years because of increased outsourcing, an issue industry officials widely recognize, the administration official said. For example, though power transformers are the backbone of the U.S. system, most aren’t made in the U.S. nor is there any capability to make certain types of them, the official added.

“We need to be thoughtful and rigorous in our analysis to mitigate the risk associated with supply chains that we don’t control,” the official said.

The Trump administration has made addressing those types of risks a priority across several industries. Officials have frequently cited threats from countries, especially China and Russia, that give financial support to suppliers in telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, nuclear power, and rare-earths mining and processing, and may have influence over them.

A Wall Street Journal investigation published last year revealed that Russian hackers looking to gain access to critical American power infrastructure were able to penetrate the electrical grid by targeting subcontractors to the system.

Methods including planting malware on sites of online publications frequently read by utility engineers to help Russian operatives slip through hidden portals used by utility technicians, in some cases getting into computer systems that monitor and control electricity flows.

Write to Timothy Puko at

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