Electricity, fuel, and other interdependencies

Freight trucks, trains, ships, airplanes all stop when the electricity is out because the pumps depend on it.  Related: Why you should love trucks and When Trucks Stop

CR. September 4 & 23, 2003. Implications of power blackouts for the nation’s cybersecurity and critical infrastructure protection. Congressional Record, House of Representatives. Serial No. 108–23

Paul H. Gilbert, member of the National Academy of Engineering and was Chair of the National Research Council Panel responsible for the Chapter on Energy Systems for the NRC Branscomb-Klausner Report, Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism.

Our basic infrastructure systems include our electric power, food, and water supplies, waste disposal, natural gas, communications, transportation, petroleum products, shelter, employment, medical support and emergency services, and facilities to meet all our basic needs. These are a highly integrated, mutually dependent, heavily utilized mix of components that provide us with vitally needed services and life support. While all these elements are essential to our economy and our well-being, only one has the unique impact, if lost, of causing all the others to either be seriously degraded or completely lost. And that, of course, is electric power. Our technically advanced society is literally hard wired to a firm, reliable electric supply.

After a major power blackout, Transportation systems would come to a standstill. Waste water could not be pumped. And so we would soon have public health problems. Natural gas pressure would decline, and some would lose gas altogether, very bad news in the winter. Work, jobs, employment, business and economic activity would be stopped. Our economy would take a major hit. It would not be a very safe place to be either. Martial law would likely follow, along with emergency food and water supply relief.

Several weeks to months would have passed, and the enormous recovery and clean-up would begin.

KENNETH C. WATSON.  President & Chairman of the Partnership for Critical Infrastructure Security, currently the manager of Cisco Systems’ involvement in critical infrastructure

Interdependence Examples. We all depend on telecommunications—in fact, when recently asked to list their dependence on other sectors, the sector coordinators rated telecommunications as first or second on their list. Nearly equal to telecommunications was electric power. Without electricity, there is no ‘‘e’’ in e-commerce. However, without railroads to deliver coal, the nation loses 60 percent of the fuel used to generate electricity. Without diesel, the railroads will stop running. Without water, there is no firefighting, drinking water, or cracking towers to refine petroleum. Without financial services, transactions enabling all these commodity services cannot be cleared. Yet, these are not just one-way dependencies. When the railroads stopped running after 9/11 to guard hazardous material, it only took the city of Los Angeles two days to demand chlorine or face the threat of no drinking water—the railroads began operating again on the third day. Throughout the Northeast, dependencies on electric power were obvious. Some areas had electric water pumps, and they had to boil their drinking water for days after the blackout.

I am not sure you can point to a single weak link. Over the last 20 years, all of the infrastructures have become more and more dependent on networks, and they have become more and more interconnected. I think the key that we need to study in research and modeling and exercises is interdependency. Each of the sectors is dependent on each of the others and sometimes we don’t even know what these dependencies are without modeling and exercises.

All of our critical infrastructures are interlinked in complex, sometimes little-understood ways. Some dependencies are surprising, contributing to unusual key asset lists.

ROBERT LISCOUSKI, assistant secretary, INFRASTRUCTURE PROTECTION, Department of homeland security

While the national focus was primarily on the blackout and its cause, our teams were hard at work assessing the cascading effects into other sectors. Interdependencies among the sectors were again demonstrated by this event. Seven major petroleum refineries suspended operations, many chemical manufacturing plants were shut down, grocery stores lost perishable inventories, air traffic ceased at several major airports, and emergency services capacity was tested. Web sites were shut down. ATMs did not work in the affected areas and the American Stock Exchange did not operate for a period of time. The effect of the blackout highlighted what we already knew at the department. If one infrastructure is affected, many other infrastructures are likely to be impacted as well. Indeed, all the critical infrastructure sectors were affected by this event. Understanding the vulnerabilities and interdependencies associated with cascading events is an area of great importance to the department.

JIM TURNER, TEXAS:  America’s critical infrastructures comprise the backbone of our economy. They are essential to our way of life. In addition to electric power systems, these essential infrastructures include chemical and nuclear plants, water systems, commercial transportation and mass transit. Our country’s infrastructure also includes the extensive computer and information technology systems which we increasingly rely upon to operate and interconnect our many diverse physical assets. There are hundreds of thousands of potential critical infrastructure targets that terrorists could choose to attack.

SHEILA JACKSON-LEE, TEXAS: An illustration of the disjunct in our infra and super-structure is the television broadcast of the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to end their workday. This is vulnerability. Thousands of riders of underground mass transit systems trapped in cars, frugal in their consumption of oxygen and hopeful that their rescue team was near equates to vulnerability. Because we cannot cast blame for this occurrence on a terrorist group means that we are vulnerable to ourselves first and foremost. The Administration must increase our awareness of the status of the areas that are most open to corruption.

Colonel Michael C. McDaniel

Assistant Adjutant General for Homeland Security for the Michigan National Guard, Homeland Security Advisor to Michigan’s Governor, Jennifer M Granholm.


On Thursday, August 14, 2003, at 4:15 p.m., a massive power outage struck the Niagara-Mohawk power grid in the Northeast US and Ontario causing blackouts from New York to Michigan.


Within minutes, much of southeast and mid-Michigan was without power, with 60% of Michigan’s population, over 2.2 million households, affected by the outage

The State of Michigan and local governments spent $20.4 million on emergency measures to save lives, protect public health, and prevent damage to public and private property.

The Emergency Management Division of the Michigan State Police began to immediately monitor conditions around the state, including the state’s nuclear power plants.

Within minutes, the state’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was formally activated, and state agencies began to monitor state and national conditions.


Some of the major complications from the blackout:

  1. Gas stations were unable to supply peoples’ needs for their cars and portable generators, as without electricity the pumps were inoperable
  2. The Detroit Board of Water and Sewers, oversight board of the nation’s second largest water system, reported that its system was not functioning correctly. It issued a boiled water advisory for its entire service area.
  3. There was no system to notify all of the customers of the boiled water advisory, as notification was dependent on the public media. It became clear, on the morning of August 15, that the largest problem was the lack of potable water. Public and private entities delivered hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to those affected sites, but a boiled water advisory was not lifted until Monday, August 18.
  4. Widespread traffic signals not functioning and limited telephone communications.
  5. Marathon Refinery, Michigan’s largest refining facility, lost power and had to shut down. One unit did not shut down properly and began venting partially processed hydrocarbons. Because of the tank’s location, the city of Melvindale (with the assistance of the Michigan State Police) decided to evacuate 30,000 residents and shut down Interstate 75 for several hours until the situation was controlled. The Marathon Refinery was inoperable as a result of the loss of electricity and water, and out of production for approximately 10 days.
  6. The auto industry shut down operations for three days.
  7. A lot of first responders were relying upon cell phones that did not have an adequate radio system, and a number of cell towers did not have backup systems that worked.
  8. Radio and television stations reported broadcasting difficulties, with several small stations not operating at all.
  9. Many facilities lacked sufficient alternative energy sources. Portable generators were needed at hospitals and other public facilities, including the state mental institution.
  10. The Fermi II nuclear plant in Monroe County was shut down as a precaution. It returned to full power production and was reconnected to the power grid late a week later on August 21
  11. The Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, the busiest commercial landport in the United States with 16,000 tractor-trailers crossing daily, was also affected.
  12. Canadian customs lost their computer datalink, and their ability to verify trucking manifests electronically. As a result they were forced to visually and manually inspect the manifests and, if warranted, the freight itself. This resulted in an approximately four-mile backup of traffic for almost 24 hours on the U.S. side.
  13. Many computer systems were not functioning, including the Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN).
  14. The Michigan State Police positioned 50 state troopers on stand-by for mobilization, if needed to maintain order in blackout areas . The Michigan National Guard also had troopers ready on stand-by.
  15. Metropolitan Detroit Airport was closed and all flights canceled until midnight on August 14.
  16. A number of public water issues arose from the blackout. Generators need an automatic activation switches and shouldn’t rely on telephone lines
  17. Almost every type of critical infrastructure that should have a generator did have some sort of generator. But no one had not tested those generators under load, so we had a lot of generators that just didn’t work. They might have fired them up before, but they never tested them under a load and actually had them producing electricity. When they did work, they ran out of fuel. We were starting to get calls from both hospitals and some of the utilities wanting to know if we could help them find kerosene diesel for their generators.
  18. A lot of people did not have old-fashioned phones. Everybody’s phone is portable, a hand-held device which requires electricity these days, or a cell device, and not all of those towers worked. So there were a number of instances where the communication systems were more reliant on electricity than we believed that they would be. Again, even those radio and TV stations that had generators, the generators didn’t work because they had never been tested. So they weren’t ready to work under load. They weren’t the right capacity generator. And then the other problem, as I said, was 24 hours later they were staring to run out of power. Both TV and radio, as well as the telephone companies, were calling as well.
  19. This was a very hot day in the summer where the usage on the Detroit water system was almost a billion gallons a day. The system, even after it came back up on generators, could only handle about 400 million gallons per day. If we had had a method, if we had some sort of warning that this was going to happen, and could have gotten out to decrease your electricity, decrease your water use ahead of time, it probably would have made it easier for the system to come back on.

The NIAC Interdependency and Risk Assessment Working Group report included results of a survey of Sector Coordinators and key infrastructure owners and operators regarding their top dependencies. Respondents were asked to list the top three sectors on which they depend, and the top three sectors that depend on them. In terms of short-term dependencies, the overall top three were 1) telecommunications and IT, 2) electricity, and 3) transportation. However, adding long-term impacts broadens the list of critical dependencies. Without financial services, business comes to a grinding halt in a matter of days. Without safe food, clean drinking water, and available health care, public health also reaches a crisis in days. Without emergency police, fire, and medical services, the ability to respond and contain emergencies is severely impacted. Long-term impacts of transportation failures are far more severe than the short term.

Lively, M. February 14, 2014. Pricing Gasoline When the Pumps Are Running on Backup Electricity Supply

At the February 11, 2014 MIT Club of Washington Seminar Series dinner on the topic of “Modernizing the U.S. Electric Grid,” Michael Chertoff gave a talk on “The Vulnerability of the U.S. Grid.

He said that after a hurricane hit Miami in about 2005, electrical workers couldn’t get to work because they had no gasoline for their cars.  The gas stations had gasoline but no electricity to pump the gasoline. 

Back-up electricity generators would have required an investment of $50,000 which was not justified on the razor thin margins on which most gas stations operate.

The gas station owners thought process was that the sales lost during the blackout would just be gasoline that would be sold after the power came back on.  Investment in a back-up generator would not change the station’s revenue and would just hurt its profitability.

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