Committee Assesses Risks and Likelihood of Electromagnetic Threats

WASHINGTON – Today, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing to examine the potential threats of geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to the electric grid. Committee ranking member, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), emphasized the responsibility shared between the federal government and industry to continuously examine and assess evolving threats to the electric grid.

“Today’s hearing offered a constructive and informative discussion about the risks and probability of a geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event to our electric grid. It was an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of where GMD and EMP threats fall on the spectrum of threats to our homeland today – and how those two threats differ,” Sen. Carper said. “From terror groups in the Middle East looking to inspire extremists at home and abroad, to the daily cascade of attacks in cyber space, to the threats posed by diseases like Ebola and Avian Influenza, the Department of Homeland Security faces a barrage of continuously evolving threats each day. That’s why we have a challenging but critical responsibility to maximize our resources and prioritize the threats that present a more likely or imminent danger. During today’s hearing, witnesses agreed that the likelihood of an EMP attack is unknown. Meanwhile, other threats to the electric grid, like cyber attacks, are all too real. We must continue to take commonsense measures to guard our electric grid against these various threats, to learn more about what we don’t know, and above all, to use our resources wisely.”

Witnesses at the hearing included Bridgette L. Bourge, a senior principal from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). The NRECA is a service organization for more than 900 not-for-profit electric utilities and public power districts, serving over 42 million people in 47 states. Her testimony offered a distinct perspective from the energy industry, and emphasized the responsibility between the federal government and industry to continuously examine and evaluate the array of evolving threats to the electric grid and prioritize resources accordingly.

“When considered as part of the broader spectrum of potential threats to the electric grid, nuclear-induced EMP is considered an extremely low-likelihood, high-consequence event. That doesn’t mean the electric industry disregards or ignores its significance; merely that it is considered appropriately as part of a broader risk management strategy,” Ms. Bourge testified. “The electric sector’s approach to protecting critical assets against all types of threats is known as defense-in-depth, which includes balancing preparation, prevention, response, and recovery for a wide variety of hazards to electric grid operations. The industry recognizes that it cannot protect all assets from all threats. Instead, its priorities are to protect the most critical grid components against the most likely threats; to build in system resiliency; and to develop contingency plans for response and recovery when either man-made or natural phenomena impact grid operations.”

While the probability of a catastrophic EMP event remains low, it would have a high-impact cost to critical infrastructure. Ms. Bourge testified that although a nuclear-induced EMP event would fundamentally fall on the federal government’s shoulders, the energy industry continues to prepare against potential attacks to ensure critical service to customers across the country.

“Fundamentally, a nuclear-induced EMP would take the form of either a terrorist attack or an act of war occurring on or above U.S. soil. As such, the principal responsibility for preventing or guarding against a nuclear attack lies with the federal government,” she continued. “However, whatever the threat, industry works to ensure that the grid remains safe, and that reliable and affordable electricity is delivered to customers when and where they need it. We can’t prevent every attack, remove every vulnerability, or respond in advance to every threat, but our defense-in-depth approach has proven successful in maintaining a highly reliable grid.”

To read Ms. Bourge’s full testimony, click here. For more information or to watch the full hearing, click here.