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On Blackout Anniversary, Playing
Politics with Reliability

August 17, 2004

A year after the largest blackout in American history, there is wide-ranging support for mandatory reliability rules governing the electric grid but the legislation is being held hostage by Republicans who control the House agenda. The public overwhelming backs them; so does the IBEW, the utility industry, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and even a U.S.-Canada panel commissioned to investigate the power outage. Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are similarly gung-ho for the need to improve accountability standards.

The only problem is leading congressional Republicans, who have refused to let existing legislation come to a vote.

IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill said passing the reliability bill would be "a step in the right direction and an appropriate way to mark the anniversary of the blackout."

The reliability standards are buried in an omnibus energy bill a costly and unwieldy collection of tax breaks for energy companies, liability protections for oil companies and a proposal to further weaken monopoly laws. The reliability standards attract the only solid support for the whole bill, so the Republicans fear the stalled energy bill will crumble if the reliability piece is pulled out and passed separately.

"Instead of passing much needed electric reliability legislation, Congress has buried it deep in the pork-laden energy bill," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut). "I call on my colleagues to support efforts to pass electric reliability legislation by itself before we leave for the year."

Republican leaders in the House control what legislation gets introduced for a vote, and an effort is under way to force them to put out the reliability rules for a vote by petition. The IBEW, along with the AFL-CIO, the Consumer Federation of America, the Consumers Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council and U.S. Public Interest Research Group are among the groups lobbying House members to gather enough signatures from members in favor of a separate vote on the Electric Reliability Improvement Act of 2003.

"As we approach the one year anniversary of the massive August blackout, its well past the time to address the problems experienced from an outdated electricity grid," said a letter from the groups to urge members of Congress to sign. "The massive August 2003 blackout was caused by insufficient industrial accountability."

As outlined in the legislation, FERC would have the authority to oversee mandatory electric reliability standards, devised by a new Electric Reliability Organization.

The August 14, 2004 blackout plunged 50 million people in the Northeast, the Midwest and southern Canada into darkness. Touched off by a tree coming into contact with a transmission line in Ohio, the blackout starkly reinforced the delicate, interdependent nature of the grid. The IBEW and others blamed electricity deregulation and years of the accompanying staff and maintenance cuts for the outage. Rising electric use, overloaded lines and overlapping industry and regulatory authorities contributed to the accountability failure. Despite that wake-up call, more warnings and the recommendations of experts, the grid remains vulnerable. And the fact that the system has not experienced another blackout is likely only the result of relatively mild weather and luck.

"The sorts of things that you need to do to make sure that were not going to have a blackout are not coming into place," said Michael W. Golay, a professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The blackout reports and actions that have been taken have really been, in my view, exercises in damage control to try to deflect criticism. Well see if Im right when we see if we have more blackouts, which Im expecting we will."


Press Release: President Hill on the 1 Year Aniv. of the Northeast Blackout
Believe it or Not It Could Happen Again...
August 18, 2003
President Edwin D. Hill on Largest Power Failure in U.S. History ...
August 19, 2003
Congress Debates Energy Bill Again ...
May 13, 2003
Energy Bill Defeated But New Legislation Likely Next Year...
November 19, 2002
Energy Bill Outcome Depends on Voters...October 29, 2002

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