Could eco-terrorists be behind the attacks on America’s power plants?

Rolling blackouts during the recent cold wave have raised concerns about the reliability of our power grid, but the growing possibility of deliberate sabotage could pose a greater threat.

The first sign that America’s power grid may have been targeted came in 2013 when a shooter disabled an electrical substation south of San Jose, reportedly firing more than a hundred long-range shots from a .50 caliber rifle. This was not a random joke or an accidental act of vandalism. It was well planned, and it took almost a month to repair the damage.

At the time, the FBI downplayed the incident, publicly stating that it did not consider it to be related to terrorism.

The mystery has been exacerbated by a series of Christmas attacks this year on two electrical substations in Washington state that have resulted in power outages for thousands of consumers. Local authorities thought the attack may have been part of a burglary – thieves sometimes attack power facilities for valuable copper and other materials that are highly valued on the black market – but the news of this incident was eloquent detail: The utility received advance warning of a possible attack by “federal law enforcement officials.”

What kind of federal law enforcement officers can they be?

A Department of Homeland Security report released in January concluded that “extremist groups” had developed “credible specific plans” to attack the network. The report does not single out any particular group or motivation, saying that a range of extreme ideologies could be the cause. By some estimates, there have been more than 100 attacks on the network this year.

power brigade
The report from the Department of Homeland Security states that America’s power grid has been the target of the attacks.
Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times/AP

The FBI has a long history of monitoring and infiltrating extremist groups and is understandably silent on which groups are under active surveillance.

While the Biden administration is obsessed with “right-wing extremism,” one can’t help but wonder if web targeting is the newest front in ecoterrorism. The FBI and other government agencies have long played down this possibility.

Of course, there is a long precedent for this kind of “direct action” by ecofans. Thirty years ago, Earth First made its bones by driving thorns into trees in a deliberate attempt to interfere with logging, although the thorns often resulted in serious injury to loggers when they used their chainsaws. Other ecoterrorist groups, such as the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, have set fire to ski resorts and slaughterhouses, with one person convicted of an attack in the late 1990s that happened just last spring.

The steady increase in the obsession with climate change is already leading to irrational and destructive public stunts, such as blocking traffic and trains, throwing paint or food at museums while sticking hands and feet to walls or floors. These antics do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But crippling the grid would be. If so, it would mean bringing to life one of the classic texts of radical environmentalism, Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel The Wrench Gang, which included attacks on major energy facilities, among other direct actions.

The founders of Earth First said that Abby’s novel was one of their inspirations. Has a new generation of “distributors” now entered the scene? The FBI and other government agencies need to be more forthright about what’s going on.

Stephen F. Hayward is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Government Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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