- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

The nation’s energy secretary told Congress yesterday that the Bush administration can’t identify what caused the massive blackout in the Northeast, but that the Republican-led omnibus energy bill awaiting passage would be a start to preventing a repeat.

“Today, less than three weeks after the blackout, I think we’re making good progress in putting together the extraordinarily complex sequence of events which surrounded the incident,” said Spencer Abraham, speaking to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Both Democrats and Republicans questioned Mr. Abraham about rising gasoline prices, which averaged $1.75 a gallon nationally during the Labor Day weekend, the highest average retail price ever. He said the Energy Department had began an investigation into the price increase to determine whether oil companies were gouging consumers.

“I think we’ll hopefully get some additional insight into whether or not this was really a market reaction only, or if other factors were involved.”

Mr. Abraham will serve as the co-chairman of a U.S.-Canadian joint task force charged with investigating the Aug. 14 blackout, saying yesterday that there is “no timetable” for the commission to complete its work. He also refused to speculate on the cause of the blackout, which affected 50 million people.

“We will follow the facts where they lead us, and we will not draw any conclusions until the facts are in,” Mr. Abraham said.

Democrats criticized the Bush administration for failing to pinpoint the cause of the blackout, citing letters sent to committee chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, in which power companies pinned the blame on the actions of their counterparts in other states.

“From what I can see in the prepared testimony submitted to the committee by the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Bush administration remains in the dark about the causes of the blackout,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat. “I don’t think we should be satisfied with a ‘we’ll get back to you later’ response.”

Mr. Abraham agreed with Republicans on the committee who said passing the energy bill would help prevent such a blackout.

“I would reiterate what I’ve said to both my friends on the Republican and Democratic side for two years, which is, let’s get an energy bill done quickly,” he said.

The administration, Mr. Abraham said, as early as next week, will provide specific suggestions to the conference for improving the bill.

Democrats, however, who largely oppose the energy bill, want to pass separate legislation that deals only with the vulnerabilities of the Northeast power grid. They argue that the bill does not directly address the problems with the grid.

“A reliability bill may not provide the full answer to all the challenges in the energy area that we confront; but it is a broad consensus that it is a necessary part of the response, and one which requires, I think, early attention,” said Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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