(CNN) - Continuing a relationship first established in the run-up to Superstorm Sandy, President Barack Obama sat down with representatives from the electric utility industry on Wednesday to discuss ways the federal government can help companies quickly restore power after major disasters.
According to accounts from two industry executives in attendance, much of the meeting focused on improving responses to natural disasters, but both industry and government officials also drew parallels to potential outages caused by a major cyber attack.
“There’s a lot of commonality in the responses to these types of activities,” said Nick Akins, president and CEO of American Electric Power.
Whatever the cause of the next major power outage, removing barriers for utility workers to reach the source will be crucial to shrinking the length of time customers are without power, and this is the primary goal of the partnership between the industry and the federal government.
Evidence of this partnership could be seen before Sandy hit land last October. A utility executive was embedded with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help facilitate the industry’s rapid response, and utility CEOs began holding daily conference calls to discuss resource sharing.
“The president came onto one of those calls before the hurricane hit in New York and New Jersey and made a strong call to make electricity a first responder issue,” recalled Edison Electric Institute President Tom Kuhn, who was on the Sandy conference calls and present at Wednesday’s meeting. “He talked about the fact that he would have no tolerance for red tape in an emergency.”
The president reiterated this desire to designate utility workers as first responders during Wednesday’s meeting, Kuhn said.
Such a designation could help companies across the country share resources by allowing trucks to easily cross the country without the need for state-specific permits or redundant stops at highway weigh stations. If structured properly, it might even allow workers from Canada to cross the U.S.-Canadian border without delay, allowing more utility resources to reach areas with major damage.
How exactly the administration and the industry can accomplish such changes was the question at hand on Wednesday.
"We really need to further identify the processes for these particular issues, I don't think that with one executive order you can solve them," Kuhn said, pointing out that there are many state regulations currently standing in the way. And on the issue of international resource sharing, laws on both side of the border could pose a problem.
But both Kuhn and Akins agreed that the president's personal involvement in the issue is unprecedented, and represents a commitment from the government to be an asset rather than a hindrance.
"His message was pretty much right on line with others in the group," Akins said. "That there are some lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy and that he was very forceful during Superstorm Sandy that we want to make sure that we can respond quickly and get all the red tape out of the way."
Held at the Department of Energy, this is the first meeting of its kind that the president has held with representatives from the utility industry. Present at the meeting were CEOs from major electric utility companies, representatives from industry trade organizations and officials from various government agencies including the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security.