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
"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
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
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."