- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2001

House Republican leaders offered legislation yesterday to help ease the power crunch in California by relaxing some environmental rules and spurring generation and conservation. Democrats immediately rejected the plan.

The bill, sponsored by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican, empowers federal agencies working with Western governors to temporarily suspend clean air and other rules during power emergencies. Officials say shortages will cause at least 30 hours of rolling blackouts in California this summer.

"There isn't sufficient time to build new power plants for California this summer," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican. "Making the most of existing generation is the only option in the near term… . Unfortunately, we cannot help those who do not wish to help themselves."

Democrats attacked the bill, which includes proposals that are likely to be expanded upon in broader energy legislation this summer, as "an assault on the nation's environmental laws." They castigated Republicans for failing to include price controls on wholesale power in the measure.

"The bill will do more harm than good," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, contending that legislation undermines efforts by California Gov. Gray Davis to promote power conservation and to take over the transmission lines of two of the state's biggest utilities.

The bill would require California to report to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission if it takes over the power lines, and join a Western regional transmission organization to speed more power to the state something Mr. Davis has been resisting.

The bill also would promote conservation by requiring federal installations in California to cut power use by 10 percent and by authorizing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to establish a clearinghouse for consumers and businesses to resell power they have contracted to receive from utilities.

Curtis Hebert, chairman of the energy commission, said the bill would help the agency to cope with California's looming crisis this summer. He particularly praised a provision that would allow small power generators in California to sell their power elsewhere if the state's utilities don't make payment.

That would free up more power in the region, Mr. Hebert said, along with another provision giving the Bonneville Power Administration, a huge federal hydropower agency in Washington state, flexibility to step up its power generation.

But another energy commissioner who has aligned himself with Democrats, William Massey, said it does little to prevent "an unmitigated disaster" in the state.

Democrats tried out what is likely to become a familiar refrain in the energy debate this year.

"This legislation creates massive loopholes in the nation's landmark environmental laws," said Mr. Waxman, who added that he consulted with Mr. Davis and state officials in coming up with a list of major problems with the bill.

"It authorizes the construction of power lines through national parks and wilderness areas," he said, and would enable Bonneville to ignore court orders and federal mandates to protect endangered species like the Northwest salmon.

Rep. Edward J. Markey mocked the inaction of the Bush administration and the energy commission in the face of repeated calls from the state for wholesale price caps, suggesting new lyrics for the 1960s hit song "California Dreamin'."

"It is heartening to see that there is at least one Texas Republican out there who is willing to acknowledge the need for federal action," said the Massachusetts Democrat, referring to the bill's author, Mr. Barton.

Democrats said they would try to add a provision mandating regionwide price controls to the bill when it comes up for a committee vote, possibly next week.

Republicans responded that most of the blame for California's power mess lies with Mr. Davis, who they accused of mismanaging last year's crisis.

"The problem is we have a governor who's not dealing with the problem," said Rep. George P. Radanovich, California Republican. "We can't create a law that can produce a better governor."

While the bill would give the federal Energy Department authority to open power transmission corridors in national parks, refuges and other federal lands, it would repeal authority the department exercised this past winter to order power generators to sell electricity without any guarantee of payment. Federal courts also would be barred from imposing such orders a provision targeted at a District court order last spring.

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