Politics & Policy

Obama Team Fails to Protect the Grid

Solar flare on the Sun’s surface. (NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory)

The White House publicly unveiled its “National Space Weather Action Plan” on October 29, amidst much fanfare and favorable press coverage.

President Obama deserves credit for leading the first administration to recognize that our high-tech electronic civilization is increasingly vulnerable to solar storms. Space weather can put at risk satellites, power grids, and other critical infrastructure — communications, transportation, business and finance, food and water — all of which depend upon electricity provided by the national power grid.

The White House deserves high praise for recognizing, and publicly warning, that a rare once-in-a-century geomagnetic superstorm, like the 1859 Carrington Event or the 1921 Railroad Storm, could pose a catastrophic threat to the national power grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructure. The White House is right that an “all of nation” solution is necessary, requiring preparedness on the part of federal and state governments, the utilities, and the private sector.

But some of us, who have been warning for years about solar and man-made threats to the electric grid, are disappointed to discover that the long-awaited “National Space Weather Action Plan” is only 38 pages long, and is not really a plan.

It is a plan to develop a plan to protect the nation from space weather.

The “action” in the “Action Plan” is to do numerous studies before taking any real action that would protect the national power grid. Federal scientific and research bureaucracies, such as NASA and NOAA, make their living by doing studies.

While additional information can be helpful, there have been enough studies.

For example, seven years ago, in 2008, the Congressional EMP Commission spent nearly a decade developing a plan to protect the national electric grid and other critical infrastructure from “all hazards” — including nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, solar storms, and other threats. The National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have also done excellent studies on the threat to the nation from solar storms.

The White House owes the American people not more studies, but concrete actions to protect the grid — now.

The Congressional EMP Commission warned that protecting the electric grid is urgent, because a nationwide blackout lasting one year could, through starvation and chaos, kill up to 90 percent of the American people.

The White House owes the American people not more studies, but concrete actions to protect the grid — now.

The “National Space Weather Action Plan” pays brief lip service to protecting the electric grid from “all hazards” but is silent about what those other hazards might be. “All hazards” should include severe terrestrial weather – such as Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. It should include physical sabotage — such as the terror attacks that caused temporary nationwide blackouts in Yemen (June 2014) and Pakistan (January 2015). It should include cyber attacks — such as the alleged cyber attack by Iran that caused a temporary nationwide blackout of Turkey (March 2015). And it should include the worst threat: high-altitude nuclear EMP attack, aspects of which have been prepared by both North Korea and Iran against the United States.

An “all hazards” plan would be best and most cost-effective, because it would protect grid vulnerabilities in transformers, generators, and control systems that are common to all these threats. Protecting the grid and other critical infrastructure against the worst threat — nuclear EMP attack — would mitigate all the other lesser threats.

Yet another problem with the “National Space Weather Action Plan” is that it appears to rely too heavily on public-private partnerships with the electric utilities. Big government trusting big business to protect us against space weather is where “crony capitalism” could get millions of Americans killed.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which represents the electric-power industry, has already been caught red-handed peddling “junk science” studies that grossly underestimate the threat to the electric grid from solar storms.

If the White House really cared about space weather, President Obama should not have vetoed the defense bill, which would have reestablished the EMP Commission, the body that first warned about the threat from solar storms and was the nation’s best resource on how to protect the electric grid and other infrastructure.

But it is not too late for President Obama to support the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act — which would require the Department of Homeland Security to take immediate steps to protect the grid — and to give the kind of priority to space weather and grid protection that he has lavished on climate change.

— Ambassador R. James Woolsey, former director of central intelligence, is chancellor of the Institute of World Politics and chairman of the Leadership Council of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security and worked for the Congressional EMP Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA.

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