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Big Changes in Store
For U.S. Energy Policy

August 2, 2005

America’s energy policy will get an extreme makeover as a result of the $12.3 billion energy bill that passed Congress in late July. A priority for President Bush even since he took office, the legislation is a shoo-in for the president’s signature, which is likely to come in the first weeks of August.

For the IBEW, the bill presents opportunities in its plans to expand the use of nuclear, wind, solar and clean coal energy, further solidifying the union’s wide reach in traditional and renewable technologies. The IBEW will also gain from mandatory electricity reliability standards, and initiatives to study the utility worker shortage and expand the electricity transmission infrastructure.

The votes capped years of wrangling over energy policy. During most of the debate, the IBEW stood firmly against the energy bill for its inclusion of repeal of the 1930’s-era Public Utilities Holding Company Act (PUHCA). But in recent months negotiators substituted PUHCA repeal with compromise language that would offer similar protections, said IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter.

"Overall, we would have preferred having PUHCA," he said. "Absent it, this is by far the best bill we have seen in the last seven years." The legislation added merger control and market manipulation language that has never before made it into the final version of earlier drafts of the energy bill.

Under the new language, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will have authority to review and approve mergers and acquisitions of public utilities, including generation-only deals. It also affirms FERC’s authority and responsibility to ensure just and reasonable rates in utility company transactions. Because of these provisions, the IBEW lobbied in favor of the bill.

"Passage of this bipartisan agreement will help improve our domestic security, ensure the nation has adequate and affordable energy, decrease our dependence on foreign oil, improve our economy and create hundreds of thousands of good paying American jobs," said a letter to members of Congress from Building and Construction Trades President Edward Sullivan, on behalf of its members unions, including the IBEW.

Competing industry, environmental and financial interests doomed the bill in the past. This time, the Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives allowed broad bipartisan participation in drafting the bill and negotiating differences between the Senate and House versions.

This legislation marks the first major overhaul of the nation’s energy policy since Congress made deregulation the law of the land in 1992.

IBEW leaders have spent years delivering warnings on dangerously low staffing levels in the utility industry; and this bill is the first national recognition of the trend. It includes a section requiring the energy secretary to monitor work force staffing trends in energy technology industries and transmission and electric power and make recommendations on how to remedy it. It also devotes $20 million to worker training programs.

Whether to open the Artic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska – the reason the Senate rejected earlier versions of the bill – will be left for lawmakers to take up another time. The final bill does not protect makers of the fuel additive and suspected groundwater pollutant MTBE. House negotiators insisted upon including such protection in the bill, but Senate members held firm against it and their position prevailed.

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