Reliability Should Be Separate Bill

Posted September 19, 2003 at 10:03am

For the past eight years, controversial measures have prevented Congress from passing any broad energy laws. While this year’s House and Senate energy bills will not be less difficult to reconcile, the electric reliability provisions within the bills have consistently enjoyed widespread support and should be considered expeditiously.

As a member of the House-Senate energy conference, I agree that our country needs and deserves a good energy bill. But as I have experienced during my tenure in Congress, writing a major energy package can sometimes take more than a year to complete.

While we continue to work through some very controversial issues now in conference, we must not lose focus of our most pressing, immediate energy concern — preventing a recurrence of the kind of electricity blackouts that affected 50 million Americans last month. We can take immediate steps toward that end by strengthening our electricity reliability standards.

Electric reliability is perhaps the only electricity issue on which there is widespread consensus and, as evidenced by the blackouts, is a sorely needed reform. In two days of hearings into last months blackouts conducted by our committee, not a single witness disagreed.

In an effort to advance this important and timely issue, I recently introduced electric reliability legislation that is virtually identical to the provisions in the House and Senate energy bills now before the energy conference. While we are not yet certain exactly what caused the blackout crisis, it is clear that the North American Electric Reliability Council’s reliability rules need to be mandatory and enforceable. Currently, NERC, which was established in the wake of prior blackouts, can only advise utilities to follow voluntary rules designed to ensure the systems safe operation. During the blackout hearings, NERC testified that in 2002 there were more than 500 planning and operating violations of its voluntary rules, half of which were of a character that could have, in theory, caused the blackouts. Under my legislation, anyone who violates the rules would be punished, and NERC could modify the rules to take into account what we learn as a result of investigations into the blackouts.

Additional steps in this field may be necessary, but taking swift action on electricity reliability is one common-sense step that we can take easily and immediately to prevent another blackout and remove Americans from risk. Energy conferees could reconcile the minor differences between the reliability provisions in the House and Senate bills, and support passage of the resulting agreement as a separate bill to be moved on an expedited basis.

I also think we may need to reexamine our policy on regional transmission organizations, particularly with respect to weaknesses in the Midwest. While we do not know with certainty what caused the blackouts, the committee’s recent hearings strongly suggest that some RTOs worked better than others. Formation of RTOs in my part of the country has been slow and remains in flux, and it appears that a stronger, and more accountable organization might have helped prevent or at least contain the blackouts.

Some of the issues before the energy conference, such as electricity reliability, will be relatively simple to resolve, especially in light of the progress made during last year’s energy conference. Other issues are more difficult. Both the House and Senate energy bills include many complex provisions, some of which are controversial. For example, the bill includes contentious issues such as drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, rolling back fish and wildlife protections at hydroelectric facilities, ethanol subsidies and repealing the consumer protections afforded by the Public Utility Holding Company Act. These are all highly complex issues taken alone; taken together, they have the potential to delay agreement on a comprehensive energy bill for many months.

The prospects for a comprehensive energy bill may also be prolonged and imperiled if issues that have not been considered by any committee, or by either chamber, become involved in this conference. Press reports have suggested that amendments to the Clean Air Act, a matter of considerable complexity, might be brought into the energy conference. The injection of this or similarly untested issues would turn this bill into a veritable Christmas tree, and slow if not decimate hopes for any real progress by the energy conference committee. It would also represent a terrible misuse of the legislative process.

The challenge to Congress is to avoid holding legislation to prevent blackouts hostage to the controversial and unrelated measures in the president’s energy bill. We should make the swift and separate enactment of the reliability matter a priority, while we continue to address the remaining issues before the conference.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee.