WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal energy officials and governors from
states darkened by last month’s blackout said yesterday that
self-monitoring of the nation’s power grid by the electricity
industry fails to protect the public, and they urged Congress to
increase government oversight.

“A system that relies on courtesy calls (to warn of power line
problems) is clearly outdated,” Ohio Gov. Bob Taft told a
congressional hearing into the Aug. 14 blackout that cascaded
within seconds from Ohio through Michigan and Canada and down New
York State.

An estimated 50 million people were affected and the costs in
lost wages, productivity and other disruptions have been put into
the billions of dollars.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm told a House Energy and Commerce
Committee hearing that the economic repercussions as a result of
closed factories, businesses and other facilities in her state
alone “will reach the $1 billion mark” and “we feel fortunate there
was no loss of life.”

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham joined the governors in urging
Congress to set federal reliability standards for the power
transmission system and give the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission clout to enforce the standards.

FERC Chairman Pat Wood said he welcomed such a move and told
lawmakers that while his agency has jurisdiction over wholesale
electricity markets and transmission costs, it has no power to
address reliability. “Currently there is no direct federal
authority or responsibility for the reliability of the transmission
grid,” he said. After a 1965 blackout in the Northeast, Congress
left it to a private group, the North American Electricity
Reliability Commission, to establish grid standards. But NERC has
no power to force companies to comply or levy any penalties to
violators.

“As long as compliance to these standards remains voluntary, we
will fall short of providing the greatest possible assurance of
reliability,” Michehl Gent, NERC president, told the hearing. He
said his organization for years had sought mandatory, federally
imposed standards.

None of the witnesses ventured to provide a precise cause for
the Aug. 14 blackout, although investigators continued to focus on
power line problems in the FirstEnergy Corp. system in northern
Ohio.

Abraham, co-chair of a U.S.-Canadian task force spearheading the
investigation, said he expected a finding on cause in a matter “of
weeks, not months” and promised to “follow the facts wherever they
lead us.”

“We won’t jump to conclusions. Our investigation will be
thorough and objective,” he said. Abraham said he and his Canadian
counterpart, Herb Dhaliwal, had agreed “to a narrowly focused
investigation to determine precisely what happened � (and)
why the blackout was not contained.”

In a second phase of the investigation, Abraham said, the group
will make recommendations on “what should be done to prevent the
same thing from happening again.”

In the meantime, Abraham said lawmakers should move ahead with
measures to improve grid reliability, including mandatory federal
reliability rules as part of a broader energy bill. Different
versions of the legislation already have passed the House and
Senate.

But some Democrats at yesterday’s hearing accused the Bush
administration and congressional Republicans of trying to use the
blackout to push through a broad energy bill that would include
drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and other
controversial issues that have stymied progress on energy
legislation for years.

“I don’t want the blackout to be used to push an (energy) bill
that many of us have great difficulty with,” said Rep. Eliot Engel
(D-N.Y.) whose state bore the brunt of the Aug. 14 power outage. He
said he feared the blackout would be used “to rubber-stamp
misguided energy policies” under the guise of repairing the power
system.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said he was introducing a bill this
week to address the grid reliability issue with new federal rules
and standards apart from the broader energy debate.

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) the committee chairman, said he was
optimistic a final energy package – including the electricity
measures that are needed – can be worked out and rejected the idea
of pursuing separate power grid legislation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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