- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

House Republican leaders were cool yesterday to pleas for congressional action to help West Coast consumers hit by escalating energy prices in the wake of California's power crisis.

Legislators from Seattle to San Diego called for temporary price controls to force down the tenfold jump in wholesale electricity prices that is creating hardship for businesses and consumers and threatens to re-create crisis conditions in California this summer.

Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's energy subcommittee, Rep. Jay Inslee, Washington Democrat, contrasted the Bush administration's "pathetic" hands-off response to the energy crisis with its quick offer of emergency aid after Seattle's major earthquake last week.

"We're having an energy price disaster and the federal government is refusing to come to the aid of the West," he said, noting that electricity rates have doubled in his state and have "shocked" consumers. "These obscene price hikes have the potential to drive the economy into recession."

Mr. Inslee said he discussed with President Bush a Western state proposal to temporarily impose price caps that are based on the cost of generating electricity. The proposal would exempt new power generators from the price cap to encourage companies to build plants needed to ease the West Coast crisis.

Mr. Inslee said the president told him to present the idea to the administration's energy task force, headed by Vice President Richard B. Cheney, but the task force so far has shut out the proposal. The administration insists California is largely responsible for solving the energy problems it created.

"The federal government is the only government right now that can care for my constituents," said Mr. Inslee, arguing that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has neglected its responsibility to protect consumers from "unjust and unreasonable" electricity rates.

But Rep. Joe L. Barton, the subcommittee's chairman, said price caps are not a "long-term solution," even if they give short-term relief to consumers.

The Texas Republican suggested he might go along with more limited action, such as enabling California to make adjustments to its federally mandated daylight-saving time schedule, a move that would save between 1 percent and 2 percent of the state's electricity consumption.

"These are regional problems that require regional solutions," said committee chairman Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, though he added, "I am skeptical of the road that California is going down."

California Gov. Gray Davis and the state legislature are moving to take over the power system. The state has authorized $11 billion of borrowing to purchase electricity on behalf of its nearly bankrupt utilities and is debating legislation to spend another $10 billion purchasing the utilities' transmission lines.

House Majority Whip Tom Delay said California has managed to "export" its problem to neighboring states by freezing consumer electricity rates at low levels at the same time it continues to import high-priced power.

"Consumers in surrounding states are paying higher rates to subsidize the increased demand" of Californians, he said, and the Pacific Northwest states have been forced to divert scarce hydroelectric power supplies to California that were needed to meet their own peak demand this summer.

"When the hot weather hits, California may very well have succeeded in exporting the rolling blackouts and brownouts it brought upon itself to its neighbors," the Texas Republican said.

Despite the "damage" created by California, Mr. Delay and the other Republican leaders said, the federal government should concentrate on long-term fixes, such as increasing oil and gas drilling.

Mr. Delay, who is the House Republican leadership's "point man" on energy, said Congress should focus on removing the "barriers" to energy development in federal environmental regulations.

Some Democrats were defiant. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, said the White House is content to "let the bloodletting and obscene profiteering continue" because Mr. Bush's presidential campaign was bankrolled by energy interests.

He said California's move to re-regulate is the "best" solution.

But other Democrats and Republicans from the region called for bipartisan cooperation.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said California was largely responsible for the energy disaster, but the administration should consider granting the request for a temporary price cap as long as it has assurances that California is increasing and diversifying its electricity supplies.

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