The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission keeps a low profile, right down to its headquarters, which are located on a narrow Washington street linking the train and bus stations.
John Norris is a commissioner. Earlier this year he and his sons visited the capital city's International Spy Museum, where he had an epiphany that yesterday became relevant to the commission's work.
Americans are accustomed to an electrical grid that works 99.97 percent of the time. Any threat to this near-perfect system is taken seriously. That's why the energy commission held a conference yesterday to evaluate whether pending Environmental Protection Agency rules might inadvertently encourage failures.
The rules in question would reduce the amount of mercury and other toxins released from power plants. Many utilities say the rules are too burdensome, and House Republicans have urged the commission to take a close look at their potential effect on the grid.
What occurred to Norris at the museum, and what he raised yesterday, is that air pollution rules aren't the most likely candidate to take down the nation's power network. "Cyber security is our most vulnerable national security issue," Norris told the group yesterday. It's also "a greater threat to our reliability" than EPA rules, and Congress has failed to enact cyber security legislation to protect the network, Norris said.
The administration played down the EPA risk yesterday. Gina McCarthy, assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, said: “In the 40-year history of the Clean Air Act, EPA rules have never caused the lights to go out."