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Bill Would Provide Funding for Security Research on Energy Infrastructure

A new bill introduced in the House of Representatives would create a program to fund graduate research into cybersecurity threats to the energy sector and create opportunities for researchers to work at federally funded national laboratories.

Reps. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.) and Mike Carey (R-Ohio) introduced the Energy Cybersecurity University Leadership Act of 2023 this week with the goal of opening the federal government’s financial pipeline to find effective methods for protecting the critical infrastructure in the energy sector.

The proposed measure would “provide financial assistance, on a com- petitive basis, for scholarships, fellowships, and research and development projects at institu- tions of higher education to support graduate students and postdoctoral researchers pursuing a course of study that integrates cybersecurity competencies within disciplines associated with energy infrastructure needs”, the bill’s text says.

The energy sector has seen its share of attacks in the last few years, with the most notable and significant one being the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline in 2021. In that incident, DarkSide ransomware actors locked up a large portion of Colonial Pipeline’s systems, forcing the company to shut down the pipeline and causing a serious disruption to gas distribution in the southeastern United States for several days. That incident led to several actions by the federal government, including an operation by the FBI that recovered about $2.3 million of the ransom that the company paid DarkSide, and a security directive from the TSA on new measures operators must take. The changes included implementing network segmentation, improved access controls, and installing security updates in a timely manner.

“Continued cybersecurity threats on America have led to the need for bipartisan and common-sense legislation that will protect our energy grid,” said Carey. “The Energy Cybersecurity University Leadership Program will allow for PHD and graduate students to dedicate their time to researching ways to bolster our national security and avoid large scale power outages and attacks on our critical infrastructure.”

The bill focuses on providing money for graduate and postdoctoral students to conduct research on threats and defenses for the energy sector. Part of that program would provide chances for researchers to work at the various national laboratories and private sector utilities during their course of study. The bill also would require the Department of Energy to work with historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, and minority serving institutions to participate in the program.

“To confront growing cyber threats and attacks against our country’s critical energy infrastructure, we must make real investments in a strong and diverse workforce ready to meet any challenge,” Ross said.