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House Panel Comes 'Down to Wire' on Electric Bill

House Panel Comes 'Down to Wire' on Electric Bill

In the first of a planned series of legislative hearings, House lawmakers on the energy and power subcommittee acknowledged yesterday that for the first time in a couple of years they were starting to see a light at the end of tunnel on electricity restructuring.

"We're moving into the next phase, maybe not the last phase, but a very important phase with consideration of our electricity legislation," said Rep. Ralph M. Hall (D-TX), the ranking minority member of the Commerce Committee panel.

Although the subcommittee has had a number of hearings on the issue, "I think this is the first one [where] the witnesses have really gotten down to the nitty gritty," he told a packed hearing room on Thursday.

Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) called the hearing so subcommittee lawmakers could begin to sift through the eight electricity restructuring bills introduced in the House so far, picking out the best approaches from each. This would be followed by mark-up, possibly around the August recess. "I hope in the very near future to have a comprehensive bill" on a bi-partisan basis, he said.

Conspicuously absent from the hearing was a measure that Commerce Chairman Thomas J. Bliley (R-VA) and Barton are drafting. "What we have missing from us today is the one bill that's yet to emerge-Mr. Bliley's bill. We're all anxious to see on this side [Democratic] that bill," remarked Hall.

He commended Barton for "open[ing] the bill development and drafting process" to all parties. "He brought in everyone from the administration - [Energy Secretary] Bill Richardson and others [who are] knowledgeable" on the issue. "I think your approach is the best way to seek consensus" on electricity restructuring legislation, he told Barton.

Also not included in the legislative review was a comprehensive bill introduced on Tuesday by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) that, among other things, seeks to reduce power-plant emissions by using a market-based approach. It also would establish a renewable energy portfolio standard of 7.5% by 2010, which the gas industry opposes. Separately, Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) announced his intention to introduce a new bill that would give local governments the option to pursue "choice" on behalf of their communities.

Rep. Richard M. Burr (R-NC) said the final legislation voted out by the subcommittee may be a "mixture" of the eight bills reviewed at the hearing. Or, he offered, "it may in fact be a new document that we have yet to think about." The subcommittee has a "wealth of options to choose from," he noted, but that "does not suggest that we automatically [will] get it right." Burr said the panel was counting on the energy industry and consumer groups to tell it "what it is that gets us to the right place." The subcommittee's "No. 1 interest is to get it right."

He noted he had "one very big principle in this. That's to see that if we introduce a deregulation bill that it in fact deregulates electricity."

Rep. Steve Largent (R-OK), has been a key force in the restructuring effort in the House. Contrary to reports that the House has "stumbled" on this issue, he said lawmakers are "continuing to move forward with a lot of momentum" towards a final comprehensive measure. The subcommittee has come "down to the wire in our efforts to vote on a bill."

It's time "to roll up our sleeves and get to work," agreed Rep. Charles Norwood (R-GA), who added that the hearings were "hopefully" coming to a close. The subcommittee doesn't intend to let staff "drop a bill in our lap" and then rubber stamp it.

Steven J. Kean of Enron Corp., speaking on behalf of Electric Power Supply Association, told the subcommittee a federal restructuring bill was needed that was both "comprehensive" in scope and "forceful." He said two bills-the Largent-Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) measure and the Clinton administration's proposal-met the "comprehensive" criteria. The final bill must be forceful, he explained, because no monopoly "voluntarily surrenders it franchise."

He also urged the House panel to address problems associated with the transmission grid. He claimed the grid currently is "openly discriminatory, with perhaps [only] 15% of [it] open to competitive usage." This prevents utility competitors from supplying cheaper power to states that have already opened up their electric markets. "Only Congress can fix the problem." He believes FERC "must be directed and empowered to ensure non-discriminatory access to the transmission [grid] for all usages and for all systems, public and private."

Kean also cited the need to upgrade the transmission infrastructure, which he said has proved to be difficult because it's "almost impossible" to site new facilities today. He further called for Congress to reform the organization in charge of grid reliability, making it "legitimate in its governance."

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