In a surprising election-year gambit, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has gutted legislation with strong bipartisan support that would protect the U.S. power grid from solar flares and Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons, to benefit a “clean” energy bill backed by Senate Democrats.
The original bill, known as the GRID Act, authorized the federal government to take emergency measures to protect some 300 giant power transformers around the country. It passed the House of Representatives by a unanimous voice vote in August, an unusual show of bipartisan support in this Congress.
But when it went to the Senate, the bill was gutted of the measures to protect the power grid from EMP attack by Murkowski and committee chairman Jeff Bingamon, D-N.M., while other portions of the bill were added to her own energy bill, S. 1462, the American Clean Energy Act of 2009.
“Sen. Murkowski stripped H.R. 5026 of the main elements designed to protect our infrastructure and did not add them to her bill,” said Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition.
An aide to Murkowski said that Murkowski voted for stripping out the EMP provisions of the bill on practical, not political, grounds.
“The bill was going nowhere. The administration opposed it, and favored a government-wide effort, not a piecemeal approach.” He added that blaming Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Energy Committee, for altering legislation being managed by the majority Democrats was “an election-year gambit by far right wing groups. Murkowski did not place a hold on the House bill.”
The stakes of this election year wrangling could not be higher, said Peter Pry, a former CIA analyst and executive director of the congressionally chartered EMP Commission.
“Within 12 months of an EMP attack or a massive solar flare, between two-thirds to 90 percent of the U.S. population would perish” from lack of electricity, Pry said, quoting the conclusions from the EMP Commission's two public reports.
On Aug. 1, NASA reported that satellites had detected a coronal mass ejection, or CME, “heading toward the Earth’s direction,” Pry said. That same day, the federal government issued a warning that a giant electromagnetic pulse from the solar storm might damage the electric grid of the United States.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated there was a 10 percent probability that the solar storm could cause a severe geomagnetic storm with devastating impact on the national power grid. Luckily, “the Earth dodged a bullet from the sun” that week,” Pry said.
The EMP Commission made a number of recommendations to protect the power grid, considered by most experts to be the most vulnerable big piece of our national infrastructure to an EMP attack.
“There are no excuses for the United States to still be vulnerable to EMP,” Pry said. The commission recommended spending between $10 billion to $20 billion over the next five years to protect giant power transformers and transmission lines, which otherwise would simply melt down in the event of an EMP attack or a massive solar flare.
“Now is the time to act to secure the electric grid, not after a major incident has occurred,” said Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
Just days after the federal government was warning of a giant solar flare in August, Murkowski intervened in the Senate Energy Committee to strip away the provisions to protect the national power grid from solar flares and EMP attack, Congressional sources told Newsmax. The EMP provisions could be added back in a revised version of the bill in the lame-duck session after the November election, the sources said.
The last time the Earth was hit by a giant solar flare was known as the “Carrington event,” which caused significant damage to the nation’s nascent telegraph system.
“The National Academies of Sciences predicted in a 2008 report that a solar geomagnetic storm as severe as the Carrington event that occurred in 1859 could inflict $1 trillion to $2 trillion and take four to 10 years to recover from,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., one of the original advocates of establishing the EMP Commission.
“That compares with the $300 billion impact of Hurricane Katrina,” he added.
Many scientists are predicting massive solar activity between now and the end of 2012.
“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity," Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division, told Fox News in June. "At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms.
In June, National Geographic broadcast a docudrama titled “Electronic Armageddon” that visualized the impact on the U.S. of an EMP attack or a giant solar flare.
For many years, U.S. intelligence analysts have argued that only a massive Soviet-style weapon of 25 megatons or more could generate the amount of EMP needed to knock out the U.S. power grid.
But Pry, who was the analyst who originally put forward that view more than 20 years ago when he was at CIA, says that times have changed.
“Cold War weapons were never designed to target civilian infrastructure,” he said. “Meanwhile, modern electronics are more than a million times more vulnerable to EMP strike than the electronics we had in the 1960s.”
Added to that, he said, Russia has developed a “super EMP weapon with a low explosive yield – as low as one kiloton – that would produce 200 kilovolts per meter, eight times the gamma radiation of a 25-megaton weapon. The United States doesn’t even have a simulator to measure that magnitude of attack.”
Such a weapon could be carried in a backpack, or loaded on a freighter and fired from a low-technology missile launcher into the atmosphere over the U.S. heartland. It is also small enough to fit on top the space launch vehicle Iran has successfully tested and launched against the United States, Pry added.
“Iran could launch a missile with an EMP weapon and remain anonymous,” Pry said. “They could launch a SCUD missile off our shores and we’d never even know we were under attack. There is no forensic evidence you can collect.”
Murkowski is staging a write-in campaign to keep her U.S. Senate seat, after she lost her in the Republican primary in August to tea party candidate Joe Miller.
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