Don’t say Bob Hall didn’t warn you.
An existential threat hangs over America, the Republican Texas state senator from Edgewood believes. Specifically, electromagnetic pulse attacks — shockwaves of energy from outer space that would fry the nation's electric grid. He sees food and water shortages starving and parching millions, natural gas line explosions engulfing cityscape in flames. And he wants Texas to be the frontline in preparing for it.
Hall is so concerned with the possibility that he assembled a two-day summit in the Texas Capitol’s extension to exclusively focus on such threats to the electric grid.
“We’re now looking at America being snuffed out from one missile, one weapon,” Hall told roughly 100 people gathered Thursday morning in an underground auditorium. “We’ll be getting a variety of viewpoints all exactly focused on the same thing: That it’s about time we do something and step up to this threat.”
Electromagnetic pulse (often abbreviated EMP) and related phenomenon have long been a fascination and fear of a doomsday faction of the Republican Party, and raising awareness of the threat has been one of Hall’s priorities since the electrical engineer and U.S. Air Force veteran joined the Legislature in 2015.
The 74-year-old senator was beaming throughout much of Thursday as his issue got the first of its two days in the sun at an event punctuated by phrases such as “fractional orbital bombardment” and a quip about the wisdom of marrying ham radio operators.
For the uninitiated, the basic EMP threat goes like this: If a nuclear missile is detonated in outer space above North America, it would release a shockwave of electricity that would fry circuits grid-wide — triggering mass chaos in a country left without cell phones, computers, refrigerators and pretty much everything else folks depend on.
One such explosion over the eastern half of the United States “could basically bring down the grid and end our civilization,” Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the privately funded Task Force on National and Homeland Security and a former CIA analyst, told the gathering. “Get behind Sen. Hall. At least protect Texas.”
Certain space weather could naturally inflict similar damage. If a coronal mass ejection, a billion-ton cloud from a solar storm, hit the earth's magnetic field, shaking from the impact might induce strong current that could overwhelm circuit breakers, trip breakers or worse.
During the 2015 session, Hall pushed legislation that would have required Texas to study and report on such threats to the Texas grid. It sailed through the Senate but died in the House. Hall vowed to re-launch EMP legislation in 2017.
The senator believes that Gov. Greg Abbott has his back. “I have it from him directly that this is a priority item for his office,” he said.
Asked about that, John Wittman, an Abbott spokesman told the Tribune: “Of course the governor supports having a secure electric grid,” but added that he has “not yet reviewed and endorsed any specific legislative proposals.”
Speakers at the “Texas Grid Security Summit” — some of whom sell goods and services in the EMP field — agreed on plenty: That the industry and regulators are sticking their heads in the sand on this issue and that the threats aren’t as far-fetched as they might sound, particularly as unpredictable North Korea continues to experiment with its weapons technology.
“Kim Jong-un is Caligula, third generation, armed with nuclear weapons and a satellite orbiting over this country,” said Pry. “That’s how close we are.”
Sciencewise, it could happen
No one disputes the science behind the notion of electromagnetic pulses — one could occur, either manmade or the result of a natural phenomenon.
But the odds are so remote, and there are plenty of other, more likely threats to the electric grid and humankind, that many electric industry officials and regulators question the priorities of doomsayers who want utilities to quickly spend billions of dollars on equipment and other upgrades that purportedly would mitigate the risks.
Industry officials say they’re already studying the phenomenon and bristle at suggestions that they don’t care. In a “Myths v. Facts” handout, the Edison Electric Institute says the EMP-obsessed ignore realities that such attacks would damage more than just the electric grid — also equipment that it depends upon. “It makes little sense to protect the electric grid while ignoring these other critical infrastructure sectors,” the handout says.
Utility officials say they’re focused on threats from all types of cyber attacks, including lower impact types that are more likely.
“In addition to ongoing security and planning activities, we’re continuing to work with elected officials and [Texas grid operator] ERCOT to gather information on the risks and impacts of any potential attack on the electric grid.” Julia Rathgeber, who heads the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, said in a statement to the Tribune. “Maintaining the physical and cyber security of Texas’ electric grid is an incredibly high priority.”
ERCOT — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — recently launched a “Grid Resilience Working Group,” dedicated to assessing risks that a “low probability of occurrence but potential high consequence of impact” event would hit the grid.
That group, just one of several formed to probe grid security, will focus largely on EMP issues. It’s investigating the potential physical toll, said Dan Woodfin, director of system operations for the grid operator. “What are utilities already doing to put things in place to mitigate the effects of that? What could be done? What are the costs and benefits?”
Another ERCOT group has been investigating solar storms. Compared to other states, those are less likely to damage Texas’ grid because of its southern geography, the grid operator notes. What’s more, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation has established “Geomagnetic Disturbance Mitigation” standards for grids across the continent.
Speakers at Hall’s forum generally laughed off that group’s efforts and those of federal regulators.
“They’re not competent to do the job in the first place, and they’re creatures of the industry they regulate,” said Henry Cooper, who led defense initiatives for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Now, he’s the chairman of a nonprofit focused on preventing missile attacks.
A federal Government Accountability Office report released this week concluded that key federal agencies have taken various actions to address electromagnetic risks to the grid, but they could do more.
Cold War origin
Why is Hall so passionate about electromagnetic matters?
“This is not a political issue that came about from me reading a Newt Gingrich book,” he told his gathering — an apparent reference to the apocalyptic novel “One Second After,” whose foreword included a warning from the former Republican U.S. House speaker about the dangers of EMP Threats.
Instead, Hall’s Cold War-era days in the Air Force sparked the interest. There, he was assigned to help harden the iconic Minuteman Missile against potential Russian EMP attacks, he said, recalling a message he received from some researchers:
“There is a threat against our missile system that we’ve got to face, because if we don’t, it’s MAD — mutual assured destruction.”
Hall said he spoke little of that experience until about six years ago, when he stumbled across an article about how EMP threats translate to the electric grid.
“What’s the cost of not doing this?” he said in an interview. “This is a very high risk.”
That is why Hall organized the summit, sponsored by a pair of Washington, D.C.-based think tanks and the "pro-family" Texas Eagle Forum, which featured discussions that mixed science, military strategy and public policy analysis. He said he wished the event could last a full week.
Hall said he’s not yet sure what next year's legislation might look like, but he hopes the power companies will “step up on their own.” As a fan of free markets, he’s not particularly fond of regulations.
But what about the skeptics?
“There are still skeptics who still say the Holocaust never happened,” he said. “So there will always be skeptics about things like that.”
Disclosure: The Association of Electric Companies of Texas has been a financial sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.