- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

A weak transmission grid in the Northeast conspired with a series of cascading events to cause the major Northeast-Midwest blackout in August, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said yesterday.

A joint U.S.-Canadian task force report expected Tuesday will show that the interconnectivity of the nation’s power grid, which is the reason for its success most of the time, leaves it vulnerable to the kind of massive failure that cut power to more than 50 million people from Michigan to New York on Aug. 14, Mr. Abraham said in a wide-ranging interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Times.

“The fact is that North America’s grid, eastern interconnect or western interconnect, is very much an interdependent system, which is 99.99 percent of the time critical to maintaining the reliability of the system. If some power plant goes out somewhere, the interconnectivity of the grid allows grid operators to substitute from some other source,” he said.

“But the fact you have that much of an interrelated system also means when you have significant events, then the isolation of those events is difficult because these things happen in a matter of milliseconds.”

Mr. Abraham signaled that the administration has scaled back its hopes for aggressive energy development in the United States even as Congress nears approval of an energy bill sought by President Bush.

The bill announced by House-Senate conferees yesterday contains measures aimed at ensuring the reliability of electricity transmission, but excludes the centerpiece of Mr. Bush’s energy plan — opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas exploration.

Given the political resistance to increasing production in Alaska and elsewhere, Mr. Abraham said, the administration is focusing more than ever on diversifying energy sources from abroad to avoid too much reliance on unstable regions such as the Middle East.

Canada, in a surprise development, has emerged as a major new and friendly source of oil in the future, as it recently has been proven to have a cache of 175 billion barrels in tappable oil reserves locked up in its western sand deposits — an amount that exceeds Iraq’s oil reserves and is second only to Saudi Arabia’s reserves in size, he said.

The vast new reserves in Canada could be as important to America’s energy security and independence in the future as the administration’s much-discussed hydrogen fuel program, which is aimed at accelerating the development of hydrogen fuel cells to replace gasoline in cars, he said.

Development of the Canadian reserves requires advanced technology and is expensive. It became feasible only in the past few years as oil prices consistently topped a critical $16-to-$26-a-barrel range in which the oil can be profitably extracted from Canada’s unique sand deposits, according to Energy Information Administration estimates.

“There are two possible routes toward independence. You can shift a substantial amount of our trading relationship to Canada,” he said, or develop cars that run on fuel cells. The hydrogen route “is the only solution that can successfully change the landscape forever. We think it can be done a lot quicker if we make it a matter of national resolve.”

The administration also continues to cultivate sources as diverse as Russia, West Africa and Central Asia to increase the world’s oil supplies, he said, noting that the proliferation of oil-exporting nations in the past decade has done much to blunt the power of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

On the subject of Iraq, Mr. Abraham said many in Congress and even some OPEC ministers have misjudged how quickly Iraq could bring its substantial oil resources back on line after the devastation of war and a decade of not investing in its oil-producing facilities.

Iraq’s production will come back slowly, he said, and the United States will not stand in the way if Iraq chooses to remain a participating member of the oil cartel.

On a recent visit to Russia, Mr. Abraham said, he detected disenchantment with the Kyoto global-warming treaty, though he does not know whether Moscow will ratify the treaty.

The fate of the treaty currently rests in Russia’s hands. Under a formula requiring ratification by industrialized nations that produced a majority of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions in 1990, only Russia or the United States has the power to push the treaty over the 50 percent mark needed to put it into effect.

While Mr. Bush has vowed never to sign the Kyoto treaty out of concern it could crimp the U.S. economy, Russian ministers for the first time last month raised questions about the validity of the science underlying the accord. Russia had been expected to sign the treaty until then.

Mr. Abraham said Russia, like the United States and many other nations, not only has concerns about the scientific certainty underlying the global-warming theory, but also about the treaty’s likely effect on economic growth.

Because the treaty would require Russia to radically curb carbon emissions by cars, power plants and energy producers, it has the potential to prevent strong growth and energy development in a Russian economy that is largely driven by oil and gas production.

Russia has seen rapid economic growth in recent years and looks likely to hit a robust annual growth rate of 6 percent this year, making it one of the world’s star economic performers. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced his goal is to double that growth rate in the next decade.

“They have a concern about whether or not the Kyoto approach is consistent with long-term economic growth,” Mr. Abraham said. “People of all countries demand a growing economy and higher standards of living.”


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