“This was an unprecedented and sophisticated attack on an electric grid substation using military-style weapons.” – U.S. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA)
A half hour before 150 rounds were fired into the PG&E substation in Coyote, California, in less than 20 minutes, an AT&T fiber optic cable was cut in an underground vault at the site causing a phone blackout at 12:58 a.m., according to what Sgt. Kurtis Stenderup, of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, told KTVU. That leaves a half hour gap between the phone blackout and the beginning of what former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff called a “well planned, coordinated and executed attack on a major piece of our electric grid infrastructure,” according to what he told CNN.
The FBI does not believe this was an attack by a terrorist organization, but they are still investigating what happened on April 16, 2013. San Francisco’s FBI spokesperson Peter Lee added “there is no nexus to terrorism at this time.” He called this a case of vandalism.
During the short attack on PG&E Corporation’s Metcalf transmission substation in Santa Clara County on April 16, 17 transformers were taken out by a sniper or a team of snipers beginning at 1:31 a.m. By the time police arrived the attackers or vandals were long gone. Surveillance cameras caught little more than the hail of bullets that struck the gates of the substation. No arrests have been made so far. Authorities found over 100 fingerprint-free shell casing and small piles of rocks that may have been left by “an advance scout to tell the attackers where to get the best shots,” according to Rob Wile of Business Insider.com. The article by Wile is based on another article by The Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Smith. You must subscribe to the Wall Street Journal to read her article.
KTVU reported that the phone black out affected local businesses as well, “Teri Bradford owns the Coyote Bait and Tackle shop down the street. She says they had power but no phones and didn’t know what had happened.”
In what appears to be a test-run for a future terror attack, a power grid blackout was avoided by quick-thinking utility workers who rerouted power around the Metcalf substation. Other power plants in Silicon Valley also helped out by producing more electricity to compensate for the PG&E transformers. The Metcalf substation had no power for over a month after the attack.
After the “domestic terror attack” Chairman Wellinghoff requested the U.S. Navy investigate.
Jon Wellinghoff stepped down as FERC chairman in November 2013. Now working as an energy law attorney, Wellinghoff believes tighter security measures by a federal agency would help prevent such attacks in the future, but other utility officials disagree. PG&E spokesperson Brian Swanson let everyone know that in situations like this, PG&E has redundancies set up “to reroute power around damaged equipment and keep the lights on for our customers.”
“This isn’t about this substation or this organized attack. This is more about the larger issue of physical security of these high-voltage substations nationwide and the need to ensure that some defensive measures start to be put in place.” – Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff
Wellinghoff is calling for a national coordinated plan with a federal agency in charge to prevent such attacks in the future. He remains deeply concerned about the vulnerability of the nation’s electricity system.
U.S. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) also believes improved security measures need to be taken, and he said so during a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in December of 2013. In 2010 The GRID Act passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, but was voted down in the U.S. Senate thereafter. The GRID Act was intended “to amend the Federal Power Act to protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense of the United States against cybersecurity and other threats and vulnerabilities.”
If passed back in 2010, here are just a few things the GRID Act would have allowed the FERC to execute at their discretion:
• Authorizes FERC to issue such rules or orders without prior notice or hearing if it determines that a rule or order must be issued immediately to protect critical electric infrastructure from a cyber security vulnerability.
• Directs FERC, before issuing a rule or order, to consult with specified entities and federal agencies regarding implementation of actions that will effectively address the identified cyber security vulnerabilities.
• Requires the rule or order issued to address a cyber security vulnerability to expire on the effective date of a certain standard developed to address the cyber security vulnerability.
• Empowers the Secretary of Energy to require, by order, with or without notice, persons subject to FERC jurisdiction to take such actions as the Secretary determines will best avert or mitigate an immediate cyber security threat.
Representative Waxman hopes to “fix the gap in regulatory authority” and empower the FERC to deal with such threats and vulnerabilities. Expect another version of the GRID Act to find its way into the congressional halls very soon.
The precision of the attack suggests the suspects could be active or ex-military personnel. Was this an act of vandalism or domestic terrorism? Could it be a training exercise of some sort? What did the perpetrators gain by disabling the power plant’s transformers and fiber optic cable? Was it more than to observe the response time of local authorities? If this was a training exercise, what were they training for? More so, who are they?
Are they training for an attack in Santa Clara, California? Super Bowl 50 will be held at the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara in 2016. Before that happens, the stadium will host WWE WrestleMania 31 on March 29, 2015.
Or was the “vandalism” a training exercise for what happened in Arkansas months later where “multiple attacks on power lines & grid infrastructure led to millions of dollars in damage and brief power outages”?