Finger-pointing

Within hours of the lights going out in New York, Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton was blaming President Bush for the power failure. While the rest of us thought Mr. Bush was in California visiting a military base, she spotted him in Akron, Ohio, turning out the warning lights at the FirstEnergy facility there.

Actually, what Mrs. Clinton told ABC’s Ted Koppel and CNN’s Larry King was that Mr. Bush’s support for energy deregulation was to blame. But this bears no more relation to reality than the scenario described above.

The electric power industry consists of three now largely separated functions: energy production, electric-power generation and transmission of electricity. Energy production and electric-power generation have partially been deregulated, but transmission is as heavily regulated as ever. Last week’s failure was a failure in transmission.

Whether partial deregulation of the electric power industry is a good idea or a bad idea, Mr. Bush deserves neither credit nor blame. The major step was taken in 1996. Mr. Bush was not president then. Mrs. Clinton’s husband was.

Former Clinton Energy Secretary Bill Richardson also took to the airwaves to blame Republicans for failing to expand the electrical grid. But his statements, like Mrs. Clinton’s, were at variance with the facts. Early in his tenure at Energy, Mr. Richardson met with environmental groups committed to blocking expan-sion of power resources, including ceding federal land for regional installation of expanded power lines.

Mr. Richardson “committed the department to not seeking that kind of expansion,” a career official at Energy told the American Spectator. “They even blocked the study of the power grid that [current Energy Secretary Spencer] Abraham ordered when he came into office. That study could have been completed more than three years ago.”

For Democrats, playing politics is more important than formulating public policy. They would rather fix blame than fix the problem. Fortunately, the Bush administration has a different approach.

The eight years of the Clinton administration passed without initiatives from the White House to increase domestic production of energy, to build more power plants or to upgrade the electric power grid. But shortly after he became president, Mr. Bush formed a task force headed by Vice President Richard Cheney to study energy challenges facing the United States. In May 2001, the National Energy Policy Development Group issued its findings and recommendations.

“Our nation’s most pressing long-term electricity challenge is to build enough new generation and transmission capacity to meet projected growth in demand,” the group said. “Over the next 20 years the United States will need 1,300 to 1,900 new power plants. … But even with adequate generating capacity, we do not have enough infrastructure to ensure reliable supply of electricity.”

We have a burgeoning shortage of electricity chiefly because of a welter of ancient and often conflicting federal, state and local regulations that artificially constrain the production of energy, the construction of power plants and the building of new transmission lines, the group said.

For instance, federal law governing the siting of transmission facilities has not been updated since 1935, when there was no interstate commerce — let alone international commerce — in electricity.

Mr. Bush put the group’s recommendations for reform into his energy bill, which Democrats in the Senate have kept bottled up ever since. Iraqis are denied reliable sources of electricity by Saddam Hussein’s saboteurs. Americans are denied reliable sources of electricity by Democratic filibusters.

Americans will have safe, reliable and affordable electricity only if we develop more domestic sources of energy, build more plants to convert that energy into electricity and build more transmission lines to bring electricity to consumers.

But environmentalists do not want to drill for oil or mine for coal. They do not want to build electric-power generating plants. Environmentalists do not want new electric-transmission lines built near their homes, or on federal land.

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