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Congress Holds Hearings on Massive US, Canadian Power Blackout - 2003-09-03

U.S. lawmakers have began an inquiry into the causes of the massive power failure last month that left millions of people in the United States and Canada without electricity. The blackout is the subject of hearings this week in the House of Representatives.

The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee Wenesday held the first of two hearings focusing on the causes of the power failure.

Spencer Abraham, President Bush's Secretary of Energy, told panel members the investigation is moving ahead. "Our job is to find out why such a widespread power outage occurred, and to recommend measures to help keep something like it from ever happening again," he said.

Shortly after the lights went out in August, President Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien formed a joint task force.

That task force, Mr. Abraham says, is working closely with governors of key states as well as with electricity distribution companies in what is a very complex investigation.

"We are gathering information on about 10,000 individual events that happened across thousands of square miles in a space of about nine seconds," he said. "All that information has to be collected, compiled, sequenced and analyzed before any credible conclusions can be drawn."

Those nine seconds were the subject of letters sent to the committee by five electric power companies. In those statements, released a day before the hearing, the companies sought to spread responsibility for events leading to the blackout.

For members of Congress who have argued for years over national energy policy, the blackout has provided fuel for renewed debate over what most agree is a power distribution system in need of repair.

House and Senate conferees are trying to work out details of comprehensive energy legislation, hoping to send a final bill to President Bush before the end of September. However, disagreements may delay that.

And calls are growing for new legislation separate from the usual wide-ranging energy bill and its politically divisive issues, aimed specifically at modernizing power distribution, and establishing congressionally-mandated reliability standards.

While some Republicans say they might support a separate bill, Democrats, such as New York's Eliot Engel and California's Anna Eshoo, used the opportunity to criticize Bush administration energy policies.

"The Northeast blackout, like the western (California) energy crisis, is serving as justification for passing a national energy policy that has little to do with the underlying causes of the power outage. We have to know the facts," Ms. Eshoo said.

"The administration seems to believe, and I think the energy bill reflects it, that the solution to our energy problems is production," said Mr. Engel. "More oil, more gas, more power, drill in the Alaska wilderness, and that will take care of all our problems. But that won't."

Democratic and Republican arguments aside, everyone agrees something needs to be done and quickly. Bob Taft is governor of the state of Ohio:

"This incident reveals serious shortcomings in the transmission of electricity that could well create a real calamity in the future, if not addressed," he said. "The blackout underscores our deep dependence on our infrastructure and the vulnerability of that system."

Many lawmakers echo Mr. Taft's concerns about the national power grid.

Republican Christopher Cox says increasing dependence on electric power raises difficult risks and challenges:

"Lack of power can lead to significant fatalities, and reek tremendous havoc on our economy," he said. "This is certainly a desirable outcome to, and hence a goal of, our terrorist enemies, as well as an accident that can occur as we saw last month."

Additional congressional hearings are planned on the implications of the August power failure for homeland security, and the need to reduce vulnerability to possible future terrorist attacks.