Energy Secretary Rick Perry got an earful from senators on both sides of the aisle Tuesday about the importance of a robust cybersecurity policy at the Energy Department in the aftermath of last week’s report of Russian intrusion into key energy infrastructure last year.
The response, Perry told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee at a fiscal 2019 budget hearing Tuesday, will lie in a new breakout office dedicated to cybersecurity with a direct communication pathway to his office.
“We don’t need rhetoric at this point, we need action,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the committee. “I want DOE and the administration to be more aggressive, and I hope we will get an assessment of where we are with our grid as a milestone to what we need to do moving forward.”
She warned that “establishing a new DOE cyber office with marginal increases is not a substitute for the meaningful action that we need.”
The importance of grid cybersecurity rose to national prominence last week after a Homeland Security Department report identified Russia as the party responsible for a series of cyber intrusions into peripheral services affecting, among other areas, nuclear facilities. That report resulted in a series of sanctions against key Russian citizens and businesses.
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Cantwell has been one of Congress’ most vocal advocates of actions to address the threat of cyberattacks on the energy grid. On three separate occasions, she has called on the Trump administration to conduct a threat assessment to understand the scope of the need for grid cybersecurity.
Cantwell suggested that the Energy Department’s fiscal 2019 budget request — calling for spending $96 million on cybersecurity activities, an increase of $17 million from enacted 2017 levels — is inadequate to face the growing threat. Perry said such a needs assessment is underway.
“This [new office] is our response to the clear challenges that the sector has relative to these sometimes non-state or state actors that are coming in and attacking . . . the formation of this office enhances the department’s role in the sector-specific agency for the sector and better positions the department to address emerging threats and natural disasters,” Perry said.
Perry also highlighted the office will help bridge the gap between the science and implementation efforts across the department.
Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, echoed the concerns of her counterpart, ensuring the department is conducting its legislatively directed mandate to be the energy sector-specific agency responsible for cybersecurity coordination.
“Know I share Sen. Cantwell’s concern on this. I want to make sure DOE is cooperating with the [Department of Homeland Security] and the FBI with implementation of actions in response to this [event], but also to make sure that DOE is taking the lead as the sector-specific agency, ” Murkowski said.
Cantwell and Murkowski included a robust cybersecurity provision to bolster the department’s efforts as part of their broad energy and natural resources bill, That bill is still awaiting floor action.
Senators also pressed Perry to maintain research funding at the department. The administration’s request includes a nearly 66 percent cut in renewable energy and energy efficiency research along with the elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, known as ARPA-E.
“While we should always be looking for places to cut the budget, we should also recognize that innovation is critical to our nation’s energy future — it creates jobs, it boosts growth, it adds to our security, and it increases our competitiveness,” Murkowski said in her opening statement. “We need to focus on maintaining our global leadership in science, research, and development.”