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California and the West

House GOP Moves to Draft Plan to Give the West Summer Energy Aid

April 05, 2001|RICHARD SIMON and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are drafting an emergency bill to help the West cope with a summer of predicted electricity turmoil, offering such possible measures as aid to ease a notorious bottleneck in the California transmission system and directing federal disaster officials to prepare for power outages.

The move came as Democratic criticism of the Bush administration's response to the power crunch intensified Wednesday. The administration has become more defensive about criticism that it has left California on its own to solve its crisis.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the influential chairman of the House energy and air quality subcommittee, said he is splicing together the emergency legislation and hopes to introduce it when Congress returns from the Easter recess.

"We can't just say, 'Let California take care of California,' " Barton said at an energy conference in Washington.

Although the bill will not contain the price caps sought by Democrats and a handful of Republicans, Barton said in an interview that he will allow amendments in support of price controls during committee deliberations.

"They will have a chance to see whether the votes are there," Barton said. "I don't think the votes are there, but I see no reason why [supporters of price controls] can't have the full right to offer an amendment."

A list circulated by GOP staff in recent weeks includes a range of ideas such as relaxing environmental rules, subject to a governor's request; increasing federal energy assistance to low-income consumers; firing up mothballed power plants; and directing federal facilities to reduce energy use by 10%.

Some of the ideas are more practical than others. Referring to a proposal to connect nuclear ships to the electricity grid, Barton said: "Do you really want a nuclear aircraft carrier that might need to be dispatched to the South China Sea tied up to the grid in San Diego?"

On the issue of relaxing clean air rules--another sensitive point for Democrats--Barton said his bill would not make permanent changes in environmental requirements. Instead, it would grant governors the flexibility to allow power plants that have exceeded emissions limits to temporarily keep operating during emergencies.

That, he contended, would be less harmful than one likely alternative: individuals and companies relying on their own generators during blackouts. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to allow diesel generators to kick in and shut down units that use natural gas," Barton said.

Separately, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has asked for an inventory of all possible energy sources in the West and "what actions will be necessary to bring those sources online or increase their current generation."

But Democrats said that without price controls, Republican-sponsored bills would be of little help this summer to California.

"If it doesn't provide wholesale price caps, it doesn't do what is needed to help California," said Phil Schiliro, chief of staff for Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri joined a group of House Democrats from California, Oregon and Washington in unveiling price control legislation.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) accused the Bush administration of conducting "faith-based regulation" of energy prices. "Flip the switch and pray the lights come on, and that you'll be able to afford the bill at the end of the month," he said.

The administration contends that price controls will discourage investment in new power plants. "Price caps don't work," Barton said in remarks to the National Energy Marketers Assn. "Price caps aren't going to get you more supply."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is preparing to introduce another price control bill in the Senate. Acknowledging Bush's opposition to price controls, she said her proposal seeks only "cost-based rates."

Price control supporters say they can structure the controls to ensure that power suppliers recover their costs and make a "reasonable" profit. They also say they can exempt new power plants in order to address Bush's concerns.

Barton warned that the federal measures are unlikely to prevent blackouts altogether.

"It's going to be a tough summer out West. . . . I don't see any scenario where you don't have severe blackouts on a consistent basis this summer," he said.

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