Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Memo offers guidance to governors on how to support energy sector during pandemic

The National Governor’s Association (NGA) has prepared a memo that provides guidance to governors on how they can best support and protect the energy industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The March 25 memo highlights three areas governors should consider to ensure energy continuity and shares the current energy industry response to COVID-19:

  • Ensuring critical energy infrastructure employees can be identified and credentialed in the event of a shelter in place order;
  • Priority access to testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies; and
  • Access to waivers for fuel carriers and Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDL) to move critical utility supplies

Critical energy infrastructure employees

The memo notes that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has issued a memo providing guidance on who should be classified as “essential” critical infrastructure workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The list is meant to assist prioritizing activities related to continuity of operations and incident response, including the appropriate movement of critical infrastructure workers within and between jurisdictions.

As of March 24, twenty-eight states have designated “essential businesses,” twenty-four of those states specifically reference the energy industry.  Fifteen of the states mention the DHS memo directly and nineteen states make specific references to the energy sector in the text of the declaration, the NGA memo said.

“Governors can connect with state emergency management agencies to determine how critical energy infrastructure employees are credentialed for travel in other extenuating circumstances like severe storms and tornadoes. There should already be a process in place to issue waiver requests, communicate with state and local authorities, and allow utility crews to move across the state in emergencies,” the NGA memo noted.

Additionally, governors should coordinate with county and municipal leaders to communicate credentialing and exemptions to ensure that they are incorporating critical energy infrastructure employees into any emergency actions, the memo said.

“If a physical or cyber event or staff shortage affects the reliability of energy systems, utilities may implement their mutual assistance agreements to move employees or equipment across state borders. Coordination with neighboring states to communicate what travel exemptions or credentials are being implemented can facilitate this interstate travel for critical utility employees so they can maintain or restore utility service.”

Access to testing, PPE, and cleaning supplies

As COVID-19 spreads, “it will be important to adequately protect critical energy infrastructure facilities that cannot be shuttered or operated remotely. Doing so will include testing potentially exposed employees before returning to work to limit the spread of the virus to critical employees needed to operate the grid,” the memo went on to say.

“There are a limited number of qualified control room personnel and power plant employees and their roles cannot be completed remotely. If COVID-19 spreads to these facilities, it could seriously undermine the industry’s ability to maintain energy continuity. In conversations with NGA, industry representatives indicated that they would like to test these personnel so they can sequester the healthy ones and limit the spread of the virus among this critical community.”

The energy sector also maintains multiple types of facilities that will need to remain operational, even in the event of a shelter-in-place order or detection of an infection, the memo said. These include major generating sites, utility operations centers and natural gas compressor stations. These facilities may require additional cleaning and access to PPE.

The NGA memo said that consideration should also be given to utility personnel who may need to enter residents’ homes in the event a problem arises. “Utilities may need to be made aware if an individual at the customer’s site has the virus or is otherwise under quarantine so sufficient protective measures can be taken for any utility personnel entering the building. In the event of a shortage of or run on PPE and cleaning supplies, the energy industry may need to be placed on a priority access list to receive these supplies so they can maintain critical operations.”

Critical infrastructure services territories “can be large and cross state boundaries, so providing them a direct line to the state emergency operations center can facilitate accessing PPE in a timely fashion.”

Waivers for fuel carrier standards and CDL’s

The memo also notes that utilities may ask governors to request suspension of fuel carrier rules on hours of service or cargo weight so that essential equipment and personnel can be moved as quickly as possible throughout the state or from other states. Other requests might include toll waivers for utility and emergency response crews.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has already issued an emergency declaration for COVID-19 exempting motor carriers and drivers providing transporting personnel, equipment, and supplies and otherwise providing direct existence from certain restrictions. Travel for utility equipment and personnel has not been explicitly called out in this declaration. 

During an energy emergency, regulatory waivers may be issued to facilitate the movement of crews, movement of personnel, and restoration of power. Temporarily waiving enforcement of certain safety, environmental, or statutory requirements can accelerate response and restoration efforts, the memo notes.

The Department of Energy maintains a consolidated, categorized library of waivers a governor can request from the federal government if needed to facilitate energy sector response.