Energy Blackout Fuels Dueling Policy Proposals

While people from Maine to Michigan struggled to cope with a massive power failure, competing interest groups in Washington, DC lost no time in using the outage to buttress competing visions of the source, and the solution, to the problem.

It remains to be seen if the blackout lights a fire in Congress, where a massive energy bill has been stalled for years, despite warnings from a watchdog group that the nation's power grid is vulnerable to precisely the failure that paralyzed the Northeast Aug. 14. But both environmentalists and industry groups gave every sign they will seek to use the power failure to push their competing visions in the ongoing energy debate.

"Like American manufacturers for the past three years, the general public in New York, Cleveland, Detroit and elsewhere is now experiencing the effects of insufficient energy supplies," asserted the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Vice President for Resources and Environmental Policy Mark Whitenton. "Both economic growth and public safety have been jeopardized."

The way to avoid future blackouts, Whitenton argued, is for Congress to pass quickly a practical bill that lays the groundwork for a national energy program that increases energy supplies.

"The best way to prevent energy bottlenecks and grid overload is to increase the efficiency of our buildings, homes, factories and appliances, in addition to our transmission lines," countered Debbie Boger, the Sierra Club's Washington representative for global warming and energy.

Boger believes building more power plants won't prevent future blackouts, because the problem stems from transmission line bottlenecks. The solution is to decentralize America's power sources, use more renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, and ensure that power companies aren't allowed to deregulate and manipulate markets.

"Unfortunately," Boger concluded, "the Bush administration's energy plan, developed with the energy industry, will take us backwards on all these counts."

The North American Electric Reliability Council has issued warnings, as recently as last year, concerning the reliability of the nation's electric transmission system.

For two years, the Bush administration and leaders in Congress have called for new legislation to help expand the nation's transmission grid, but the effort has so far been unsuccessful.

Prospects for the bill's passage may have improved, thanks to the disruptions of the recent blackout. But there is little sign the power outage has taken the fuel out of the energy policy debate, a dispute that has helped to stymie progress on the energy bill.

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