Blackouts spur intense policy debate

By CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI Congressional and Policy Correspondent   |   Aug. 15, 2003 at 4:29 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- As power trickled back on across the northeastern United States and lower Canada Friday, the political and policy implications of the widest blackout in North American history began to take shape.

Although the cause for the blackout was undetermined, Thursday's event had Democrats as well as Republicans in Washington calling for improvements to the nation's power grid.

During a tour of a national park in the mountains of Santa Monica, Calif., Friday, President Bush said the blackouts were an indication of the need to improve the antiquated North American electricity delivery grid.

"It's a wake-up call," said Bush. " The grid needs to be modernized; the delivery systems need to be modernized."

The president's comments followed criticism from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former secretary of energy, that the federal government had failed to take the necessary steps to improve energy transmission systems in the United States.

Although Bush may see the event as a wake-up call, industry insiders and some critics have been highlighting the need for a major revamping of the North American electrical grid for some time. The transmission system simply has not kept up with the ever-growing demand for electricity in the United States.

The North American Electric Reliability Council said Friday that while the cause of the outage was under investgation, it was suspected that the problem began on a part of the grid called the Lake Erie loop, which runs in a circle between New York and Detroit and around both sides of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. That part of the grid has long been a problem area.

Michael Gent of the NERC said in a conference call that there was no evidence of any hacker intrusions on any computer logs. NERC, which was founded in 1968 to oversee voluntary electrical industry efforts to ensure transmission reliability, hopes to have preliminary results of their investigation in a few days. A final determination could take months.

For their part, NERC officials have been developing rules and procedures to prevent just such an event. Nevertheless, the group has long called for Congress to pass legislation aimed at maintaining the reliability of the overtaxed electrical grid.

They propose the establishment of a congressionally mandated, but independent, industry-led reliability organization that would have the authority to enforce transmission standards on companies.

Bush, along with U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, said that while power was being restored around the country, people in affected areas should keep electricity usage to a minimum to help ensure the stability of the system as it is brought online. Government officials in several areas where power was coming back online echoed this plea.

Transmission-line failure in Connecticut brought service back down in parts of the state early Friday. Rolling blackouts were imposed in New York's Hudson River Valley Friday because too few power plants had come back online to handle the load.

Partial power was restored to all parts of New York City Friday, but the city's subway and other systems remained shuttered, making rush hour problematic for those who chose to venture back to work.

And while most places were getting at least partial power back, parts of Michigan were not expected to have electricity until early next week, a situation that also could occur in outlying areas in the Northeast.

The interconnectedness of the nation's electrical grid to other important infrastructure services was also highlighted by the grid breakdown.

Detroit's water department was pumping only half the usual volume of water on Friday. Officials warned residents to conserve water but also to boil water used for drinking or cooking.

In Cleveland, the city faced its worst water crisis ever Thursday, with the power outage shutting four major pumping stations that serve more than one million residents. The stations began pumping water again Friday morning.

Also in Cleveland as well as New York City, the release of untreated waste water forced the closing of beaches at a time when air conditioning remained scarce and temperatures high.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reported that there had been 80,000 calls to 911 requesting emergency assistance on Thursday night with 60 serious fires, many caused by the burning of candles for light. One of those blazes resulted in a death of a 40-year-old man from a heart attack

In addition, there were a record 5,000 emergency medical service calls, and 800 elevator rescues by government officials in Manhattan and the outer boroughs of the city.

However, the situation remained calm overall, with little if any signs of the past problems of looting and street crime experienced during past blackouts. Legend has it that looting began in first ten minutes during New York's 1977 blackout.

In Ottawa, Canada, two people died in a house fire caused by candles. Police chief Vince Bevan said Friday that there had been "serious looting" after dark the previous night.

Toronto's deputy police chief, Mike Boyd, said there were 38 major arrests for robberies, lootings and assaults overnight, "slightly above" normal. A statement from Emergency Medical Services made an appeal to stop using candles, which were blamed for more than a dozen overnight fires.

On Thursday, Bush said that he has supported the idea of improving the transmission grid "all along." However, the Bush administration has past fought efforts to revamp the nation's electrical delivery systems that were not part of broader energy legislation.

Republican allies of the Bush administration, including House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas, derailed just such a proposal from Democrats in June 2001. The measure, proposed during California's energy crisis, would have provided $350 million in federal loans and loan guarantees for the industry to improve power transmission systems around the country.

The Bush White House has supported provisions mandating transmission reliability standards for industry, but only as part of broader, more contentious energy legislation including measures like expanding drilling for oil and natural gas in federal parks. This has made passage difficult.

The major system outage is certain to place the latest versions of comprehensive energy legislation pending in the House and Senate on center stage when Congress returns from recess in September. Both versions of the bill contain energy transmission reliability language that closely echoes the NERC's reliability proposal.

The bill would also provide some funding for grid improvements, but critics contend the level is too low to bring transmission systems up to needed standards.

Calling the blackout an "eerie, unsettling peek into the future," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Bill Tauzin, R- La., said in a statement Friday that a full committee hearing would be convened on the subject in early September and that committee investigators had already begun looking into the issue. He also stuck by the measures in the comprehensive bill as the answer to the problem.

"While deeply troubling, it is not especially surprising to me that there has been a failure of a major North American power grid," said Tauzin. "Yesterday's massive blackouts highlight the critical need for Congress to enact a comprehensive national energy bill this year."

But committee ranking member John Dingell, D-Mich., called for the reliability provisions to be pulled out of the contentious House energy bill and fast-tracked as stand alone legislation, a concept a spokesman for Tauzin said the chairman would not support.

The response from the Senate side of the Capitol was more muted, with several Senate leaders choosing to hold off on comment until more facts were learned about the exact cause of the grid breakdown.

Despite the direct impact on people's lives, it remained to be seen whether the experiences over the last two days would have a long term effect on energy policy in the United States.

Some predicted that the California blackouts in 2001 would result in a major government response on the issues involved then. But outside of that state, the problems of electricity markets have yet to result in a major policy response.

Within California, little has changed since the 2001 rolling blackouts, with Gov. Gray Davis facing a recall effort in October that is in part credited to his slow response to the crisis.

However, it is important to remember that it was Davis's Republican predecessor that signed the electrical industry deregulation into law. Electricity market experts generally view that move as the root cause for the state's problems.

That form of hands-off, free-market approach remains the concept favored by the Bush White House and the Republican allies that control Congress. It also is a guiding principle of the reliability measures awaiting Hill approval.

One Senate Democrat staffer close to the issue said that while intense regulation is not called for, there is clearly a need to explore ways to improve the system without having to rely entirely on the industry for improvement.

"They have had years to do that and it is unlikely they will, even if they can impose fines on each other for following self-defined rules," said the source.

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