According to interviews with energy companies, state officials, and cybersecurity experts, Russian hackers have probed Texas’ energy infrastructure for vulnerabilities that would allow them to steal sensitive information or disrupt operations.
Since last month’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, state regulators and energy companies – from utilities to oil and gas transportation hubs to their suppliers – have been aware of the rising Russian cyber threats. However, they are careful not to give too many details.
“We are on super high alert,” Thad Hill, who is CEO for Texas power giant Calpine, said, noting that he has closely monitored Russia’s cyber activities.
ABC13 report President Joe Biden warned last week that the White House has received “evolving intelligence that the Russian government is exploring options for potential cyberattacks” – the administration’s starkest warning yet.
Hackers seeking to block oil and gas shipments from sea ports, or gaining access to refineries’ networks to prevent them from producing gasoline and other products, are among the worst-case scenarios in Texas.
According to energy companies and their regulators, hackers are not unusually scanning their networks for weak points.
As a result of the Russian invasion in February, Texas energy-related facilities have seen an increase in cyberattacks, according to Robert M. Lee, founder, and CEO of the industrial cybersecurity firm Dragos.
His company has tracked the hackers probing Texas energy infrastructure recently and found out they are Russian, said Lee, who previously worked at the National Security Agency.
“Texas has some key export facilities for liquid natural gas – at a national security level, there are a couple of sites that we all freak out about,” Lee stated.
“If you took down one side, you don’t get fuel exports out to certain countries.
“The Port of Corpus Christi has grown to be the third-largest seaport in the country and the nation’s second-largest exporter of natural gas. Many European countries rely heavily on Russian natural gas, and the U.S. is trying to help wean Europe off Russian gas by increasing U.S. natural gas exports to Europe – part of an increasing effort to put economic pressure on Russia.
“We are certainly a target,” Sean Strawbridge, CEO of the Port of Corpus Christi, said in an interview.
Globally, Russia is known for having one of the best cyberattack operations in the world.
Dr. Chris Bronk, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Houston, said he is most concerned about potential cyber attacks on the U.S. electricity system.
According to regulators, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which runs Texas’s power grid, and the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which oversees it, work diligently on cyberdefense.
When a winter storm hammered Texas last year, ERCOT was unable to keep the lights on, leaving hundreds dead and millions without power. According to the ERCOT, the grid was only minutes away from catastrophic failure that might have led to months-long blackouts had the agency not ordered companies to turn off power to large areas.
“If parts of ERCOT go down, the whole grid could collapse,” Bronk said.
“It’s a rickety ship, and we have ample evidence of the weaknesses.”
Cyberdefenses have been stepped up by state regulators.
“We take cybersecurity and the protection of the Texas grid and our state’s energy infrastructure very seriously,” a spokesperson for the Public Utility Commission of Texas said in an email. “We are aware of and closely monitoring the potential increased risk of a cyberattack on that infrastructure and we’re working with our regulated industries to communicate emerging threats, alerts, and warnings issued at the federal level.”
Several officials in West Texas, the nation’s largest oil-producing region, are on edge after a February hacking attempt on a local hospital system.
According to Dustin Fawcett, the new county judge for Ector County, home to Odessa – the Ukrainian city on the Black Sea – Medical Center Hospital System, the attack “did come from Russia.”
“Anything to disrupt our way of life will then impact the oil and gas industry,” Fawcett stated.
“If they can disrupt our production out here in any way, that benefits them.”