Congress Debates Energy Bill Again
May 13, 2003
Despite two years of efforts to secure passage of a comprehensive energy bill, there is little to show but partisan gridlock and unresolved debate. But this month, the U. S. Senate is once again considering legislation on national energy policy.
A new Senate bill drafted by Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) recycles elements of the original 2001 legislation aiming to increase domestic energy production. Other provisions would rewrite gasoline regulations, mandate purchase of renewable power and increase auto fuel efficiency requirements. But the issues that are provoking the most intense debate are those involving the regulation of electricity markets and ownership of utilities.
The IBEW is adamantly opposed to the so-called electricity title that would expand the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and repeal the Public Utility Holding Company Act while doing nothing to guarantee consumers fairness or provide adequate penalties for industry misbehaviors.
"FERC has already proven its not capable of effective oversight," IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill said in a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality Chairman Joe Barton. "The General Accounting Office has outlined the inadequacies of FERCs regulatory and oversight approach, staffing concerns and budget restraints."
A greatly empowered FERC under the proposed energy bill would govern competition throughout the country, imposing a centralized and heavily monitored market. In effect, it would force transmission owners to surrender control of their systems to grid operators and strip local companies and state regulators of their ability to manage their systems to best meet the needs of their local or regional markets.
The legislation also seeks to repeal the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA) of 1935, passed to limit the ability of large holding companies to buy and hold more than one utility without approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
"Repeal of PUHCA would remove a consumer protection that has served Americans well for nearly 70 years and topple the remaining cornerstone of the regulatory compact between utilities and the public," President Hill said, warning that industry consolidation often means workforce reduction and difficult times for utility bargaining units. "This provision would unleash the predatory practices seen in California and elsewhere upon the entire nation."
Senate plans call for debate on the bill to last for a few weeks. Before becoming law, the legislation must be reconciled with a dramatically different version that passed in the House of Representatives and includes a controversial provision for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska that the Senate does not. Because no agreement could be reached in a House-Senate conference, the 2002 energy bill died.
For most IBEW members and consumers, it all comes down to comprehensive utility deregulation, said International President Hill, a failed concept that the IBEW continues to fight. "Our concerns center on the safety and reliability of the system, effects of cutthroat competition on staffing levels and maintenance programs, costs to consumers, mega-mergers and market dominance of a few energy conglomerates, and the impact of deregulation on the environment," he said.
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