San Diego Union-Tribune

April 5, 2001

Quick fix proposed for power problems
   Clean-air waivers part of GOP package

By Toby Eckert 

WASHINGTON -- A key House Republican said yesterday he is drafting emergency legislation to help California and other states facing power crises this summer, and hopes to put it on a fast track for passage.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, indicated his proposal would allow waivers of clean-air regulations that critics say hamper power generation, but would not include electricity price controls sought by California officials. Barton backed away from the controversial idea of plugging nuclear-fueled Navy vessels into the power grid.

Barton -- who chairs the House energy and air quality subcommittee -- said he hopes to "get some bipartisan consensus" before actually introducing legislation. But his approach already is alienating some Democrats.

"The clean-air moves would be an enormous problem," said a spokesman for Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, a subcommittee member. "If you're not doing (price controls) and instead weakening clean-air laws, you're not really doing anything."

Capitol Hill sources said Barton won't introduce a bill if it appears subcommittee members from Western states would be able to attach language calling for price controls. He is also awaiting a green light from the White House, the sources said.

Democrats from California, Oregon and Washington, joined by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., introduced a bill Wednesday that would require federal regulators to impose wholesale price controls in the West for the next two years and order refunds for high electricity prices dating back to June 1, 2000. New power plants would be exempt from the price limits, which would be based on the cost of producing power, plus a profit margin.

In a speech to the National Energy Marketers Association, Barton said he hopes his subcommittee can pass a bill shortly after Congress returns April 22 from its Easter recess. It would be the first move by Congress to address the power crunch roiling California and the West and looming in other regions.

"California is too big a part of our economy, too big a part of our population base. We can't just say, 'Let California take care of California,' " Barton said. " . . . Unless we pass a law that says, 'Summer shall not start in California until September the first,' we've got to do something right now to help them this summer."

Barton refused to say exactly what he would propose. But he indicated that a draft bill he planned to circulate among subcommittee members would parallel proposals he sent to the White House recently.

They included directing the EPA to waive nitrogen oxide emission limits on power plants if a governor declares an electricity emergency, increasing the use of backup generators, allowing the start-up of mothballed nuclear power plants, providing federal funding for the expansion of a crucial Central Valley power conduit known as Path 15 and directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make plans for blackout response.

Barton said "technical reasons" sidelined his proposal to use nuclear-powered Navy vessels to keep the lights on in California.

"Plus, you've got some national security issues. Do you really want a nuclear aircraft carrier that might need to be dispatched to the South China Sea tied up to the grid in San Diego?" he added.

The Bush administration was said to be less than impressed with the idea.

Barton said he didn't "have any definitive answers" yet from the White House on his proposals.

Barton did not waver in his opposition to price controls, dismissing them as "a political expedient that can hold down