Okla. deregulation conference serves up emotional reactions

By KATHLEEN DAVIS, Associate Editor

Nov. 13, 2000—Oklahoma U.S. Representative Steve Largent had prepared for his luncheon address on electric deregulation; he traced statistics. He brought in Houston energy analyst Matthew Simmon’s “Perfect Storm” analogy for the current “energy crisis.”

Largent even had visual aids courtesy of American Superconductor. What he probably hadn’t counted on facing at the National Energy-Environment Law & Policy Institute’s conference was a heckler.

Largent rallied around the idea of competition for Oklahoma’s electric market—which has a tentative date of 2002 set for deregulation. He pushed for a “level playing field” and pointed to the transmission side of the equation for needed improvement. And then he was blindsided when he stated that competition was the way to promote general welfare.

“The way that general welfare is promoted is through regulation,” stated a gentleman during the question and answer portion of Largent’s presentation. “The move to deregulation is equivalent to the HMO in the health field,” he added.

That scent of unprecedented surprise attacks had been in the air all morning. With representatives of consumer groups like Neighbor for Neighbor alongside deregulation hopefuls like State Sen. Kevin Easley, it was only a matter of time before tensions rose.

Easley, co-author of Senate bill 220, a 180-page bill to move forward the restructuring process in Oklahoma, lamented its demise in May before stating that its defeat did see more discussion about deregulation. Legislators in the House of Representatives voted 56-41 to kill the bill.

“If nothing else has happened, at least we expanded our involvement,” he told a congested room at the Tulsa Country Club November 10th. “When we started this process in 1995, you couldn’t get five people in a room to discuss it.”

A significantly higher number are now interested in the process-mostly due to the summer price hikes in California. In a one-day conference on electric deregulation in the state, there was a specific half-hour devoted entirely to the “California crisis and how to prevent it.” Representatives like Largent, however, dismissed the summer events. Instead, he again stressed the idea that competition will lower prices—even in Oklahoma, which already has the 8th lowest rates in the U.S. He doesn’t see competition as being the problem in California.

“I think that’s [the crisis] an anomaly,” he stated in response. “I don’t buy into that argument [that competition doesn’t work].”

Easley, however, warned that the newly emotional hot potato of deregulation may be a difficult issue to pass on in the political arena—no matter how much an individual believes in the process.

“I’m not sure that there will be a new piece of [Oklahoma] legislation next year,” he told conference attendees. “There aren’t a lot of senators who even want to look at this at all. You become a target.”