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Blackout shines light on partisan energy divide

Should power grid issue be part of energy bill?

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Last week's massive blackout is shining a light on a stalled energy bill in Congress and partisan differences over how lawmakers should proceed.

Over the weekend, Republicans touted an energy bill, stalled in a House-Senate conference committee and backed by President Bush, while Democrats argued that fixing the nation's aging power grid should not be a part of GOP attempts to change energy policies.

"This issue has been held hostage to the Republican agenda of trying to drill in the most pristine wilderness, environmentally sensitive areas of the country," Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts said Sunday on CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. "We could have broken this issue off three years ago, five years ago. But they refused to allow it to move as a separate piece of legislation."

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said that was "a ridiculous charge."

"I mean, we've been trying to pass energy legislation," he said, also on Late Edition.

Abraham said the solution to the nation's energy woes, including an antiquated power system, was the energy bill, part of Bush's 105-point energy plan, which he introduced in 2001.

"Ninety-five of the 105 recommendations are ones that the executive branch can implement, and we have been implementing them," he said. "We've done the things we can do as an executive branch. Now we have to finish the job at the Congress."

But Democrats said all that was necessary for the moment was to focus on the transmission grid.

"You've got an emergency," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, on Fox News Sunday. "Let's address the emergency. Let's go to the other things that are more difficult later."

Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said controversial issues such as offshore drilling, drilling in Alaska, and research and development of alternative fuels need to be set aside in favor of a bill that would "give teeth" to the North American Electric Reliability Council, which was established after the 1965 blackouts to design a system that would prevent future blackouts but has no power to enforce its guidelines.

"We can offer (Bush) support for an intelligent policy," Dingell said. "We can't offer him support for a policy ... that is unduly complicated."

Markey, another Democratic member of the committee, agreed.

"This issue has nothing to do with whether or not we drill in the pristine Arctic refuge for oil," he said. "This issue has nothing to do with whether or not we increase the fuel economy standards for SUVs. This issue has to do with whether or not we have mandatory national standards for ensuring that the transmission system in our country can handle the electrical flow."

But Abraham told reporters that it would be "a huge mistake" not to pursue a comprehensive bill.

"We want a comprehensive bill, not salami slices one at a time," he said.

Although Abraham said the administration was "not going to point fingers," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said it was House and Senate Democrats, the utility companies and what he dubbed "BANANA" (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) environmentalists who were keeping the country from updating its power system.

"This president, along with the Republicans in the House, have been trying to wake people up for years," DeLay told Fox News Sunday. "The bill that passed the House is what we need. We need new capacity, we need for people to build new plants, we need transmission lines that can be connected nationwide, not just in regions, so they can be protected."

Utility companies, he said, don't want to see the grid opened for more competition.

"We need to create an interstate system," he said. "We created an interstate highway system. Surely we can create an interstate transmission system so that we can get energy to the people who need it."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was energy secretary under President Clinton, agreed on the need to address the issues contained in Bush's energy bill, but said now is not the time.

"The president should take out those provisions in the energy bill that are controversial: coal and nuclear subsidies, ANWR [Arctic Wildlife National Refuge] issues, and concentrate on conservation initiatives and also on mandatory reliability standards where utilities would be fined, where there would be penalties," he told CNN.

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