Monday, August 18, 2003

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham yesterday dispatched federal investigative teams throughout the Northeast as administration supporters and critics debated who was to blame for last week’s blackout.

“Something went wrong. We’ll find it out, and when we do, we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Mr. Abraham said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

In New York, meanwhile, power company officials warned residents to conserve electricity as the city prepared for a major test as workers return to offices for the first full day of work since the Thursday blackout.

Appearing on all the Sunday political talk shows, Mr. Abraham refused to speculate on the cause of the cascading outages or comment on reports the problems originated in Ohio.

“I can only say this: What we need is an independent investigation to be conducted on both sides of the border jointly by the U.S. and the Canadian energy ministries,” Mr. Abraham said.

“Until then, I am not going to comment on the suggestions that are out there. We’ll certainly take into account the investigation that’s gone on. But I think the people want a final, decisive answer, and we’ll give it to them,” Mr. Abraham said.

The blame game and finger-pointing continued as Democrats criticized congressional Republicans and the White House for failing to pass an energy plan. Republicans say Democrats have opposed the energy plan since President Bush first took office.

Mr. Abraham called it “partisan squabbling” and said Democrats who blocked Republican initiatives are “trying to have it both ways.”

“If you’re a person who doesn’t have [electricity], you don’t want to hear this partisan squabbling, what you want is to have solutions,” Mr. Abraham said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, said the Bush administration’s investigation will get to the heart of “the things that real citizens are caring about.”

“My Aunt Linda in Warren, when she rose to turn on the tap water, she wants the water to appear, she doesn’t care who’s responsible. She doesn’t care who owns the grid and who doesn’t. She wants to know, is it going to work and am I going to have electricity? If I go to the hospital, am I going to be able to have my surgery completed? If I get into an elevator, am I going to be able to go to the top floor?” Mrs. Granholm said.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, blamed Senate Democrats and what he dubbed “BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) environmentalists” for blocking legislative solutions.

“This president, along with the Republicans in the House, have been trying to wake people up for many years,” Mr. DeLay said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“I’ve had an electricity bill introduced almost every year that I’ve been in Congress; We’ve been trying to tell the American people that this was going to happen,” Mr. DeLay said.

Democrats said the energy bill was held up by Republicans who wanted to include other forms of energy production such as oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy development.

Mr. Abraham said the legislation could not be passed one issue at a time.

“We need comprehensive energy legislation that addresses all of these parts, not just pulling out one part and leaving the rest vulnerable to these kinds of problems in the future,” Mr. Abraham said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

The cost to fix the electrical grid could be upwards of $50 billion, a long-term cost that would be passed on to customers, Mr. Abraham said.

“It’s not going to all be borne in one year or a short period of time, but that’s the kind of long-term investment that will be needed to keep the transmission system in a situation where we have the ability to both avoid blackouts on the one hand and deliver power to people at an affordable level,” Mr. Abraham said.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and former Clinton administration energy secretary, criticized Bush officials for cutting what he described as energy efficiency programs and not increasing energy standards on air-conditioner manufacturers.

Mr. Richardson said the current administration must establish “mandatory reliability standards” that control how much electricity is issued.

“I went around the country, and it’s documented, I held 13 reliability summits warning that this could happen,” Mr. Richardson said on “Face the Nation.”

“We, the Clinton administration, pushed this mandatory standards in the Congress, the Republican Congress did not respond, they didn’t want to move in this direction. So, I feel that on our watch, we did everything we could,” Mr. Richardson said.

However, he added, “I don’t think it makes any sense to point blame.”

There are numerous steps that could be taken to avoid future blackouts, including stripping out “those provisions that are controversial — nuclear and coal subsidies, the drilling in Alaska, and pass a single reliability standard, stand-alone,” Mr. Richardson said.

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