San Diego Union-Tribune

March 28, 2001

Congressman eyes nuclear vessels as source of power 

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- As California braces for more blackouts this summer, a key House Republican has floated a plan that includes mobilizing a federal disaster agency, waiving some environmental regulations and exploring whether nuclear reactors aboard Navy ships could be connected to the power grid.

Several Democrats immediately attacked the plan for not including electricity price controls sought by Gov. Gray Davis and other California officials. They also charged that it would undermine clean air laws.

The 17-point plan was drafted by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Commerce Committee's energy and air quality subcommittee. Copies were obtained by Copley News Service.

Samantha Jordan, a spokeswoman for Barton, confirmed that he had circulated some proposals for responding to the Western power crisis among subcommittee members late last week. Some of the ideas were deleted before the list was forwarded to the White House, Jordan added, but she would not say which ones.

Barton has presided over several hearings on the power crunch and has said that he is "more than prepared" to draft legislation to help California. A White House task force, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, is also developing a national energy policy.

President Bush has repeatedly stated his opposition to caps on wholesale power prices. He has called for a concerted effort to increase energy production.

The list of ideas Barton sent to subcommittee members was aimed at boosting power generation and transmission in the West, increasing conservation and preparing for blackouts.

Some of the production and transmission measures called for quickly expanding a crucial power conduit in the Central Valley known as Path 15, using federal funds for all or part of the project; allowing small power generators to sell electricity to buyers other than the state's cash-strapped utilities; and establishing standards for allowing businesses with on-site electricity generation to send surplus supplies to the power grid.

Other steps, sure to be unpopular with environmentalists, could be taken if a state declares an "electricity emergency." In addition to the idea of harnessing the energy from nuclear-powered Navy ships and submarines, they include temporarily waiving nitrogen oxide emission limits at power plants, allowing the construction of generating plants on federal and Indian lands, restarting mothballed nuclear reactors and delaying for a year a plan to divert water in California's Trinity River from power generation to environmental restoration.

On the conservation side, Barton proposed allowing states to lengthen daylight savings time and requiring federal facilities to reduce energy use by 10 percent.

Finally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be directed to open an office in California, conduct an educational campaign to prepare the public for blackouts and have a plan ready to provide assistance during power outages.

Barton has been skeptical of the idea of having the federal government limit the cost of wholesale power in the West and did not include that among his proposals. Instead, he said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should investigate whether wholesale prices are "unjust and unreasonable" -- a finding FERC already has made once.

That drew the criticism of four California Democrats -- Reps. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, Anna Eshoo of Atherton, Jane Harman of Torrance and Lois Capps of Santa Barbara -- who sit on the House Commerce Committee. They sent a letter to Barton on Friday spelling out their objections.

"He's left off the 10-ton gorilla solution, which is directing the FERC to . . . impose a reasonable cap on the price of wholesale electricity," Harman said.

The Democrats also said that Barton's proposals would "undermine the Clean Air Act" and that there is "widespread agreement among those directly involved in California's electricity system that clean air
rules are not responsible for electricity shortages."