Bush sees quick action on energy bill
Sec. Abraham: Too early to determine blackout's cause
By William L. Watts, CBS.MarketWatch.com
Last Update: 4:40 PM ET Aug. 19, 2003
WASHINGTON (CBS.MW) -- President Bush on Tuesday said top lawmakers expect to come to an agreement quickly on a final energy bill that would include "mandatory reliability standards" for electric utilities in the wake of last week's massive blackout.
Bush, speaking briefly with reporters in Crawford, Texas, said he talked by telephone Monday night with Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and House Energy Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La.
"One thing is for certain, they're very confident that they'll have a mandatory reliability standard in the energy bill," Bush said.
"What that means is that companies transmitting energy will have to have strong reliability measures in place, otherwise there will be a consequence for them. There will be incentives in the new bill to encourage investment in energy infrastructure," he said.
Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said it is too early to speculate on the cause of the blackout or why safeguards failed to prevent the blackout, which left more than 50 million Americans and Canadians without power for a day or longer.
Abraham said the North American Electric Reliability Council, or NERC, an industry-backed watchdog that monitors power flows, had agreed to forego its own investigation into the matter and would instead cooperate in the task force probe.
NERC over the weekend said problems on power lines in Ohio operated by FirstEnergy (FE: news, chart, profile) were evident before the blackout, but said it was unclear whether the problems were the cause of the wide power loss or symptoms of troubles elsewhere in the grid. FirstEnergy has denied that problems with its lines could have been responsible for the wide blackout.
"At this point, we believe the prudent course is to gather and analyze the relevant information to make sure that we have a complete picture of what happened before we begin any public discussion or commentary," Abraham said.
Abraham is scheduled to hold his first formal meeting Wednesday with his Canadian counterpart, Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal. The officials will meet in Detroit.
The House and Senate have each passed an energy bill. Domenici and Tauzin are slated to head House-Senate negotiations on a final bill when Congress returns next month from its August recess.
Electricity provisions, however, have been major obstacles in past efforts to craft an energy bill. Divisions have often cleaved along regional lines rather than party lines, with southern and western lawmakers fearful that efforts to further open up the grid would result in higher electricity prices for their constituents as excess power is shifted to regions with higher demand.
Tauzin on Tuesday afternoon announced his panel would hold two days of public hearings on the blackout Sept. 3 and 4.
The committee will invite Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Pat Wood, NERC President Michael Gent, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Gov. George Pataki to testify, he said.
In a statement, the congressman said he assured Bush that a compromise energy bill would be ready for action by the end of September.
"We both agreed that this legislation must contain several critically-important provisions designed to prevent future electricity blackouts. The three key elements are: mandatory reliability standards, investment incentives and reform of transmission siting rules," Tauzin said.
William L. Watts is a reporter for CBS.MarketWatch.com.