Electricity Grid Cybersecurity: DOE Needs to Ensure Its Plans Fully Address Risks to Distribution Systems

What GAO Found

The U.S. grid’s distribution systems—which carry electricity from transmission systems to consumers and are regulated primarily by states—are increasingly at risk from cyberattacks. Distribution systems are growing more vulnerable, in part because their industrial control systems increasingly allow remote access and connect to business networks. As a result, threat actors can use multiple techniques to access those systems and potentially disrupt operations. (See fig.) However, the scale of potential impacts from such attacks is not well understood.

Examples of Techniques for Gaining Initial Access to Industrial Control Systems

Distribution utilities included in GAO’s review are generally not subject to mandatory federal cybersecurity standards, but they, and selected states, had taken actions intended to improve distribution systems’ cybersecurity. These actions included incorporating cybersecurity into routine oversight processes and hiring dedicated cybersecurity personnel. Federal agencies have supported these actions by, for example, providing cybersecurity training and guidance.

As the lead federal agency for the energy sector, the Department of Energy (DOE) has developed plans to implement the national cybersecurity strategy for the grid, but these plans do not fully address risks to the grid’s distribution systems. For example, DOE’s plans do not address distribution systems’ vulnerabilities related to supply chains. According to officials, DOE has not fully addressed such risks in its plans because it has prioritized addressing risks to the grid’s generation and transmission systems. Without doing so, however, DOE’s plans will likely be of limited use in prioritizing federal support to states and industry to improve grid distribution systems’ cybersecurity.

Why GAO Did This Study

Protecting the reliability of the U.S. electricity grid, which delivers electricity essential for modern life, is a long-standing national interest. The grid comprises three functions: generation, transmission, and distribution. In August 2019, GAO reported that the generation and transmission systems—which are federally regulated for reliability—are increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks.

GAO was asked to review grid distribution systems’ cybersecurity. This report (1) describes the extent to which grid distribution systems are at risk from cyberattacks and the scale of potential impacts from such attacks, (2) describes selected state and industry actions to improve distribution systems’ cybersecurity and federal efforts to support those actions, and (3) examines the extent to which DOE has addressed risks to distribution systems in its plans for implementing the national cybersecurity strategy. To do so, GAO reviewed relevant federal and industry reports on grid cybersecurity risks and analyzed relevant DOE documents. GAO also interviewed a nongeneralizable sample of federal, state, and industry officials with a role in grid distribution systems’ cybersecurity.

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    Under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, participating agencies can make awards to small businesses majority-owned by multiple venture capital operating companies, hedge funds, or private equity firms (investment companies and funds). In fiscal years 2019 and 2020, four of the 11 agencies participating in the program received proposals from small businesses majority-owned by investment companies and funds (i.e., qualified small businesses), and three of the four made awards to such small businesses. Specifically, the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of the Navy within the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Education made a combined 45 awards worth $31.6 million to qualified small businesses during this period. As in previous years, NIH made the most awards and awarded the most funds to qualified small businesses in fiscal years 2019 and 2020. The Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy opened its SBIR awards to qualified small businesses, but did not issue any awards to them during fiscal years 2019 and 2020. Since 2011, when qualified small businesses became eligible for SBIR awards, participating SBIR agencies have considered whether to allow qualified small businesses to participate in the program. Consistent with what GAO found in December 2018, in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, agencies cited several reasons for not allowing qualified small businesses to participate in their SBIR program. For example, officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Homeland Security said that they did not pursue the option because qualified small businesses have not expressed much interest in their SBIR programs. In contrast, two component agencies within DOD—the Departments of the Navy and the Air Force—decided to allow qualified small businesses to receive awards and the Department of the Army within DOD was considering doing so. For example, Air Force program officials told us they found that providing SBIR funding to qualified small businesses would expand the Air Force's investment in cutting-edge technologies with both commercial and military uses. NIH—the agency that has made the majority of awards to qualified small businesses—has continued to make awards to qualified small businesses in its SBIR program, as these businesses are subject to the same standard reporting requirements as all other SBIR award recipients. NIH officials also noted that SBIR recipients provide information on specific project impacts, such as technology transfer and commercialization activities, and NIH cited development of a long-release capsule for medication as an example of a successful outcome from an award to a qualified small business. The SBIR program enables federal agencies to support research and development (R&D) projects carried out by small businesses. Participating agencies are required to spend a certain percentage of their extramural R&D obligations on their SBIR program each year. Eleven federal agencies participate in the SBIR program. To qualify for SBIR awards, a small business must meet certain ownership and other eligibility criteria. The Small Business Act, as amended, authorizes agencies to allow participation in their SBIR programs by qualified small businesses. Upon providing a written determination to the Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA)—the agency that oversees the SBIR program—and specified congressional committees, agencies may make SBIR awards to qualified small businesses. The Small Business Act, as amended, includes a provision for GAO to conduct a study of the impact of requirements relating to the involvement of investment companies and funds in the SBIR program and submit a report to Congress regarding the study every 3 years. GAO's first review covered fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and in December 2018, GAO issued its second report on this issue, for fiscal years 2015 through 2018. This third report addresses (1) SBIR participating agencies' awards to small businesses that are majority-owned by multiple investment companies and funds in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 and (2) reasons participating agencies cited for allowing or not allowing the participation of qualified small businesses in the SBIR program. GAO reviewed agencies' data on the participation of qualified small businesses and conducted interviews with or obtained written answers from program managers from the 11 participating agencies and SBA. For more information, contact Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or wrightc@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    A New York man pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support and resources to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the al-Nusrah Front, both designated by the U.S. Secretary of State as foreign terrorist organizations.
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  • Columbia Class Submarine: Delivery Hinges on Timely and Quality Materials from an Atrophied Supplier Base
    In U.S GAO News
    The Navy's schedule for constructing the first submarine of the new Columbia class is threatened by continuing challenges with the computer-aided software tool that Electric Boat, the lead shipbuilder, is using to design the submarine. These challenges will likely impede construction because the shipbuilder is late in completing design products used for building the submarine. To ensure construction begins on schedule, the Navy modified its design contract with Electric Boat to include an option for constructing the first two submarines and requested sufficient authority from Congress for fiscal year 2021 to exercise it. Navy officials stated, however, that the Navy's budget request is lower than its current cost estimate, and it is not informed by an independent cost assessment. As a result, the program will likely need more funding to reflect the increased estimate. Quality problems with supplier materials caused delays during early construction. These quality problems included missile tubes (depicted below) with defective welds. As the shipbuilders expand outsourcing to suppliers, quality assurance oversight at supplier facilities will be critical for avoiding further delays. Quad Pack of Four Submarine Missile Tubes However, the Navy has not comprehensively reassessed when to seek additional inspections at supplier facilities that could better position it to identify quality problems early enough to limit delays. The Navy plans to invest about $128 billion in 12 Columbia class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The shipbuilders will construct the Columbia class at the same time as the Virginia class attack submarines. They plan to rely on materials produced by a supplier base that is roughly 70 percent smaller than in previous shipbuilding booms. Congress included a provision in statute for GAO to examine the program's status. This report assesses the Navy's efforts to complete the design for the lead Columbia class submarine and actions the shipbuilders and the Navy have taken to prepare for construction and ensure the lead submarine is delivered according to schedule and quality expectations. GAO assessed Navy and shipbuilder design progress against cost and schedule estimates, reviewed documents, and interviewed officials about supplier readiness and quality assurance. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in November 2020. Information that the Department of Defense (DOD) deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO recommends that the Navy (1) provide Congress with updated cost information, (2) include information on supplier readiness in its annual report to Congress, and (3) reassess when to seek additional inspections at supplier facilities. DOD concurred with the recommendations but disagreed with some of the report's details. GAO incorporated DOD's comments as appropriate and maintains the validity of the findings, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Shelby S. Oakley at (202) 512-4841 or oakleys@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement today that will require Midwest Can Company, one of the largest manufacturers of portable fuel containers in the United States, to pay a $1.7 million civil penalty to resolve Clean Air Act violations.
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    In U.S Courts
    The Judiciary implores Congress to pass the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act of 2020 during the current lame duck session. The bipartisan bill if passed, would improve security at judges’ homes and at federal courthouses across the country.
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  • The Bank of Nova Scotia Agrees To Pay $60.4 Million in Connection with Commodities Price Manipulation Scheme
    In Crime News
    The Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotiabank), a Toronto, Canada-based global banking and financial services firm, has entered into a resolution with the Department of Justice to resolve criminal charges related to a price manipulation scheme involving thousands of episodes of unlawful trading activity by four traders in the precious metals futures contracts markets.
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    In Crime News
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    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury in Denver, Colorado, returned an indictment charging a Bow Mar, Colorado, businessman with tax evasion, failing to pay over employment taxes, and failing to file tax returns.
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  • Offshore Wind Energy: Planned Projects May Lead to Construction of New Vessels in the U.S., but Industry Has Made Few Decisions amid Uncertainties
    In U.S GAO News
    Under the Jones Act, vessels carrying merchandise between two points in the U.S. must be built and registered in the United States. Developers are planning a number of offshore wind projects along the U.S. east coast, where many states have set targets for offshore wind energy production. Stakeholders described two approaches to using vessels to install offshore wind energy projects in the U.S. Either approach may lead to the construction of new vessels that comply with the Jones Act. Under one approach, a Jones Act-compliant wind turbine installation vessel (WTIV) would carry components from a U.S. port to the site and also install the turbines. WTIVs have a large deck, legs that allow the vessel to lift out of the water, and a tall crane to lift and place turbines. Stakeholders told GAO there are currently no Jones Act-compliant vessels capable of serving as a WTIV. One company, however, has announced a plan to build one. Under the second approach, a foreign-flag WTIV would install the turbines with components carried to the site from U.S. ports by Jones Act-compliant feeder vessels (see figure). While some potential feeder vessels exist, stakeholders said larger ones would probably need to be built to handle the large turbines developers would likely use. Example of an Offshore Wind Installation in U.S. Waters Using a Foreign-Flag Installation Vessel and Jones Act-Compliant Feeder Vessels Stakeholders identified multiple challenges—which some federal programs address—associated with constructing and using Jones Act-compliant vessels for offshore wind installations. For example, stakeholders said that obtaining investments in Jones Act-compliant WTIVs—which may cost up to $500 million—has been challenging, in part due to uncertainty about the timing of federal approval for projects. According to officials at the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for approving offshore wind projects, the Department plans to issue a decision on the nation's first large-scale offshore wind project in December 2020. Some stakeholders said that if this project is approved, investors may be more willing to move forward with vessel investments. While stakeholders also said port infrastructure limitations could pose challenges to using Jones Act-compliant vessels for offshore wind, offshore wind developers and state agencies have committed to make port investments. Offshore wind, a significant potential source of energy in the United States, requires a number of oceangoing vessels for installation and other tasks. Depending on the use, these vessels may need to comply with the Jones Act. Because Jones Act-compliant vessels are generally more expensive to build and operate than foreign-flag vessels, using such vessels may increase the costs of offshore wind projects. Building such vessels may also lead to some economic benefits for the maritime industry. A provision was included in statute for GAO to review offshore wind vessels. This report examines (1) approaches to use of vessels that developers are considering for offshore wind, consistent with Jones Act requirements, and the extent to which such vessels exist, and (2) the challenges industry stakeholders have identified associated with constructing and using such vessels to support U.S. offshore wind, and the actions federal agencies have taken to address these challenges. GAO analyzed information on vessels that could support offshore wind, reviewed relevant laws and studies, and interviewed officials from federal agencies and industry stakeholders selected based on their involvement in ongoing projects and recommendations from others. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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    In Crime News
    The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a published opinion on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, holding for the government in a case involving the statute of limitations on assessment in the context of bona fide residency in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), announced Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Justice Department’s Tax Division.
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