States Push Pollution Rules, Power Line Authority
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
The midsummer power outage that turned off lights from New York to Toronto to Cleveland also turned a spotlight on the nation's electric power transmission system ... and the picture it revealed was troubling.
It was by far the largest blackout in U.S. and Canadian history, leaving millions of people without power on a hot summer afternoon and stranding tens of thousands in downtown streets and skyscrapers. It took two days to restore power in some parts of the Northeast, and parts of Ontario suffered rolling blackouts for more than a week after the Aug. 14 breakdown.
It was all a vivid reminder that, as Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham put it, "We have yet to get our energy house in order."
But it was not the only such reminder during 2003. Americans also suffered through price spikes for gasoline, home heating oil and natural gas; and Californians who know all about rolling blackouts became accustomed to paying $2 a gallon at local pumps.
The Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 lacked the romance of the Northeast blackout of 1965 and the New York City blackout of 1977. Revelations of power-grid vulnerability were grim. A task force convened by U.S. and Canadian authorities concluded in November that human and computer errors set off the chain of events.
A filibuster in the U.S. Senate held up passage of an energy bill that would have given the federal government more power to decide where high-voltage power lines should go in much the way it has long enjoyed authority to create rights-of-way for oil and natural gas pipelines.
Those provisions were only a small part of the $31 billion, 1,148-page energy bill the first major overhaul of U.S. energy policy in more than a decade -- but they were a controversial one.
The National Governors Association lobbied against the federal siting provisions, which would preempt state authority if a state failed to approve the siting request within one year, said Diane Shea, director of the NGA's natural resources committee.
Marilyn Showalter, chairwoman of Washington's Utilities and Transportation Commission, said federal review of power line locations would lengthen decision-making and fix something that isn't broken.
State policymakers will continue to struggle in the new year with how to pay for improvements to the century-old transmission grid. Some states want to look at regional solutions for funding power grid improvements while others prefer using traditional rate-based methods, said Robert Burns, senior research specialist at the National Regulatory Research Institute.
While states don't want to relinquish authority over the placement of power lines, some sued the federal government in 2003 for what they regard as lax enforcement of federal clean air and water rules. A dozen sued the Environmental Protection Agency to stop what they contend is backsliding in the fight against pollution and smog.
Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington asked a federal judge to block the EPA from weakening regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. California sued separately.
That agency, meantime, got new leadership in November when Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt left his state post to take the EPA helm as successor to Christine Todd Whitman.
In his first remarks as EPA administrator, Leavitt said, "Environmental protection needs to be more than just an agency. It needs to be an ethic."
But some environmentalists feared that federal clean air and water regulations would be further weakened on his watch. As Utah's governor, Leavitt championed a constitutional amendment to give states more power. Lawson LeGate, senior southwest regional representative for the Sierra Club, an environmental lobby, said, "I see this gap between states and the administration widening, not narrowing, after the governor's appointment."
A key issue in the multistate lawsuit is whether to consider carbon dioxide, which accounts for 32 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. States say yes; the Bush administration says no.
Other noteworthy developments in 2003 on the energy and environment fronts:
- Nevada kept maneuvering in the courts to block a federal plan to store tons of radioactive waste at the Yucca Mountain site in 2010.
- As gasoline prices surged to record highs in late summer, attorneys general in California and Connecticut opened investigations into possible price-gouging.
- Natural gas inventories rebounded in the fall as moderate weather eased demand.
- States, strapped by sluggish economies, curtailed spending on environmental protection. The Environmental Council on the States reported that states spent just 1.4 percent of their budgets on the environment in 2003, the lowest in 17 years of study.