Nat­u­ral gas has a good record against hack­ers

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - VOICES & VIEWS - Don Santa is pres­i­dent and CEO of the In­ter­state Nat­u­ral Gas As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica.

Nat­u­ral gas pipe­lines can be tar­geted by cy­ber­at­tacks. So can elec­tric grids. And power plants. And hos­pi­tals, city gov­ern­ments, banks, en­ter­tain­ment com­pa­nies, and vir­tu­ally any­thing else that ex­ists in the dig­i­tal age.

Like most of those en­ti­ties, pipe­line com­pa­nies have taken ag­gres­sive steps to bet­ter shield their in­fra­struc­ture from hack­ers, iso­late crit­i­cal sys­tems, and beef up phys­i­cal se­cu­rity. Re­cent al­le­ga­tions by some that the nat­u­ral gas in­dus­try is in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble to cy­ber­at­tack are un­sub­stan­ti­ated and not based on any fac­tual ev­i­dence.

A re­cent in­ci­dent af­fect­ing a third-party ser­vice provider, used for sched­ul­ing and nom­i­na­tions by some pipe­line op­er­a­tors, demon­strates how the in­dus­try’s pre­pared­ness pro­tects con­sumers. Af­ter an at­tack in March halted data ex­changes from the com­pany, the op­er­a­tors that used their ser­vices to fa­cil­i­tate gas de­liv­er­ies and billing sprang into ac­tion. There was no im­pact on nat­u­ral gas de­liv­er­ies and gas never stopped mov­ing through pipe­lines as a re­sult of this in­ci­dent.

Nat­u­ral gas pipe­line com­pa­nies have a long­stand­ing track record of re­li­able ser­vice, and are ded­i­cated to meet­ing the high­est in­dus­try and fed­eral stan­dards for safety, se­cu­rity and re­silience, en­sur­ing the flow of nat­u­ral gas. This is par for the course in an in­dus­try where the num­ber of threats are in­creas­ing, but ad­vances in se­cu­rity and sys­tem re­silience have made in­flict­ing any real dam­age in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult.

Com­pared to cy­ber­at­tacks that shut down en­tire elec­tric grids in Ukraine and a ran­somware virus that hob­bled ser­vices in At­lanta for days, the nat­u­ral gas in­dus­try has avoided any at­tacks caus­ing a halt in ser­vices. Pre­pared­ness is key, and the in­dus­try has demon­strated its com­mit­ment through par­tic­i­pa­tion in pro­grams like the Down­stream Nat­u­ral Gas In­for­ma­tion Shar­ing and Anal­y­sis Cen­ter, as well as real-world train­ing ex­er­cises like the NERC GridEx.

There is still work to be done, but we are on the right track.

De­spite this progress, a re­cently leaked “pre­de­ci­sional” memo from the U.S. Depart­ment of En­ergy and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil ar­gues that nat­u­ral gas cy­ber­se­cu­rity threats are proof that ag­ing coal and nu­clear power plants need to be propped up through un­prece­dented and legally ques­tion­able use of fed­eral na­tional se­cu­rity pow­ers.

This rep­re­sents a so­lu­tion to a prob­lem that does not ex­ist. If the En­ergy Depart­ment acts, con­sumers will be sad­dled with as much as $11.8

bil­lion to pay for the un­eco­nomic coal and nu­clear plants.

That might be jus­ti­fi­able if th­ese fa­cil­i­ties in­creased the re­li­a­bil­ity of the grid. But they don’t. That’s why three pre­vi­ous at­tempts to find le­gal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to sub­si­dize th­ese plants have failed. That’s also why PJM, the non­profit elec­tric grid op­er­a­tor for the re­gion that has seen the most coal and nu­clear re­tire­ments, dis­missed the pro­posal as “dam­ag­ing to mar­kets and there­fore costly to con­sumers.”

As FERC and others have pointed out, an at­tack on the elec­tric grid is more likely, has real prece­dent, and would ren­der fuel stock­piles mean­ing­less.

Mean­while, re­ports have in­di­cated that nu­clear plants them­selves are be­com­ing prime tar­gets for hack­ers. Fuel sup­ply is­sues, in­clud­ing gas pipe­line is­sues, in fact, ac­counted for a mere 0.00007 per­cent of black­out hours be­tween 2012 and 2016, while elec­tric trans­mis­sion prob­lems were re­spon­si­ble for more than 90 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 study.

That’s partly be­cause the ge­o­graph­i­cally dis­persed pipe­line sys­tem for gas is in­her­ently re­silient. In­deed, un­like elec­tric­ity, gas moves too slowly to cause a “cas­cad­ing” or domino-ef­fect black­out.

There are le­git­i­mate threats to the grid. Cy­ber­se­cu­rity can al­ways be bet­ter.

But dis­rupt­ing mar­kets to keep ob­so­lete 20th-cen­tury power plants run­ning... not so much.


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