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Power on, blackout investigations off and running

Energy secretary calls on all involved to preserve documents

A FirstEnergy high-tension electrical transmission tower in Rootstown, Ohio, is shown in this photo.
A FirstEnergy high-tension electrical transmission tower in Rootstown, Ohio, is shown in this photo.

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(CNN) -- Officials turned their attention Sunday to determining the cause of last week's blackout that darkened parts of eight U.S. states and Canada, and how to prevent such outages in the future.

There were calls to upgrade the aging U.S.-Canadian electrical power grid and to create mandatory, enforceable standards for companies that operate it. But Democrats and Republicans disagreed on how to pursue those goals.

At the beginning of what is likely to be a long investigation, the North American Electric Reliability Council -- an energy oversight group -- noted that three power lines near Cleveland, Ohio, failed before the cascading blackout started Thursday afternoon, but said it was not known if they were the cause.

FirstEnergy Corp., a power company that provides electricity to 1.4 million customers in Ohio, said in a statement Saturday that some of its lines failed before the blackout and that an alarm system did not signal a problem. (Timeline of power line failures)

NERC President Michehl Gent said the grid should have isolated the Cleveland area.

"We've collected thousands and thousands and thousands of data points, probably 100,000 data points. We're sorting through this, putting it in chronological order, trying to make sense of it. And we'll get to the bottom of the problem," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

The areas hit by the blackout were all back online Sunday, though power generation in some cases had not reached normal capacity.

Officials in Michigan and Ohio also asked residents to continue boiling water before drinking it because of possible sewage contamination of the water supply connected to the blackout. (Gallery: Images from the blackout)

"We are at 100 percent service, although the utility companies aren't quite at 100 percent generation," Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said on CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer." "Everyone is able to flip the switch and have the lights come back on."

But Granholm, who saw 60 percent of her state go dark, said it was imperative now to "get to the bottom of it" and make sure nothing like it happens again.

"Get to the bottom of it" was a phrase on many officials' lips Sunday. U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has set a meeting with his Canadian counterpart, Herb Dhaliwal, for this week to begin a collaborative effort to find answers. (Full story)

Abraham also said he will send teams of investigators to begin on-site investigations into the cause of the outage.

The investigators will collect information and conduct interviews at utility companies, independent system operators and NERC. Abraham called on all parties to preserve documents and data for review.

Abraham, Granholm and others were quick to seize on the NERC's announcement about the transmission lines in Ohio.

"We need incentives for reinvestment in the transmission grid," Granholm said. "We absolutely need to invest in the grid. In many places we need to address capacity too." (Flash animation: Power grids explained)

Abraham said he agrees. "Regardless of whether the problem is related to transmission operation, we need more transmission capability," he said on "Fox News Sunday."

The Bush administration is backing a comprehensive energy bill in a Senate-House conference committee.

The measure is part of President 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," Abraham said. "We've done the things we can do as an executive branch. Now we have to finish the job at the Congress."

But Democratic leaders said the bill must have more time to be considered, and the country's power problems need help now.

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

Dingell, ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said issues like offshore drilling, drilling in the Arctic and alternate fuels need to be set aside in favor of a bill that would "give teeth to NERC."

The council was established after "The Great Northeast Blackout" of 1965 and was asked to design a system that would prevent future outages.

"We can offer [Bush] support for an intelligent policy," Dingell said on "Fox News Sunday." "We can't offer him support for a policy ... that is unduly complicated."

Abraham, however, told reporters that was "a huge mistake."

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

DeLay blames Democrats, utilities, environmentalists

Although Abraham said the administration was "not going to point fingers," House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, said it was House and Senate Democrats, the utility companies and "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 said on "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," DeLay 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, a Democrat who was energy secretary during the Clinton administration, agreed with Republicans on the need to address the issues contained in Bush's energy bill, but said now is not the time.

"The Congress should strip out those provisions that are controversial -- nuclear and coal subsidies, the drilling in Alaska -- and pass a single reliability-standard standalone bill, develop regional transmission lines, increase investment in some of the transmission lines by having rules of regulatory certainty," he said on CBS.

Exploitation of the millions of barrels of oil beneath the 100-mile coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska has been a key part of Bush's energy plan. Environmentalists contend that drilling there would jeopardize a pristine area valued for its wildlife.

Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said on CNN's "Late Edition" that the Bush energy bill would "zip through" Congress if the Alaska drilling proposal were removed. The proposed Arctic drilling has "nothing to do" with the electrical grid issue.

The important issue, Markey said, is "whether or not we have mandatory, national standards for ensuring that the transmission system in our country can handle the electricity flow." Markey sits on the Select Committee on Homeland Security and the Energy and Commerce Committee.

"This has nothing to do with whether or not we drill in the pristine Arctic refuge for oil, that has nothing to do with the electricity grid."


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