TSA, Transportation Officials Give Insight into New Cybersecurity Mandates for Pipeline Operators


Agency leaders expressed a commitment to avoiding duplication of their efforts as lines blur between cyber and physical security.

The second of two recent directives the Transportation Security Administration has issued to pipeline operators will allow some flexibility but mandate certain cybersecurity best practices, according to the head of the agency. 

“That's what the security directive does require, sir,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske told Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., during a hearing on the issue in the Senate Commerce Committee. “It puts a mandate in place for the most critical pipeline systems to do some of those best practices.”

Pekoske testified before the committee on Tuesday along with Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, and Leslie Gordon, acting director of homeland security and justice at the Government Accountability Office. They responded to senators’ concerns following a ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline that caused multiple states to declare emergencies as the company’s shuttering of operations caused a run on fuel supplies along the East coast. 

The event was one in a series of high-profile incidents that have spurred a shift toward requiring private-sector owners and operators of critical infrastructure to report incidents to the government and take measures to improve their cybersecurity posture.

In May, shortly after the Colonial Pipeline attack, TSA issued a directive requiring the industry to report significant incidents, maintain a round-the-clock cybersecurity coordinator, and analyze their practices against the agency’s voluntary guidelines. TSA announced the second directive on July 20, but said it would not be shared publicly due to its sensitive classification.  

“The whole idea behind the second security directive is to make sure that, in addition to the reporting and the coordinator and the gap analysis, that we take specific actions to prevent an attack from occurring,” Pekoske told Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. 

He said the second directive will also require architecture design reviews to ensure adequate separation of information technology from the operational technology that runs the physical processes of industrial control systems and could affect the flow of products through pipelines.  

GAO’s Gordon said TSA has come a long way, implementing most of the recommendations GAO made in a scathing report criticizing the agency’s ability to manage pipeline cybersecurity. But she said one area the agency needs to continue working on is its coordination with the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which has the official responsibility for physical pipeline safety. 

PHMSA and TSA are signed onto a memorandum of understanding that commits the parties to sharing information and avoiding a duplication of efforts. 

During the hearing, DOT’s Trottenberg revealed PHMSA’s role helping Colonial to get back online after the attack and said the agency is “leveraging its authorities in three critical areas: pipeline control room regulations—nerve centers of pipeline system operations—integrity management plan requirements and Emergency Response Plan regulations.”

“Traditionally, PHMSA regulates safe pipeline operations and TSA regulates cybersecurity,” she said. “The Colonial Pipeline cyberattack illustrates how these two missions intertwine, requiring collective action from different government agencies in the private sector. Therefore, PHMSA is revisiting the scope of integrity management plan and emergency response plan requirements for pipeline operators to ensure they account for cybersecurity attack contingency.”

Trottenberg said PHMSA worked with Colonial to get the pipeline system up and running again after the attack and those new contingency requirements will include mandatory manual back up systems.

“I think one of the interesting lessons of Colonial Pipeline is PHMSA stood up and helped Colonial Pipeline do manual operations, something that they had not done for for many, many, many years,” she said. “Now one thing we're going to be looking at going forward with pipeline operators is can you get up and running manually, should an incident occur, so we can be sure we don't have those disruptions.”