Barton to propose California emergency bill this week

By Maureen Lorenzetti
OGJ Online

WASHINGTON, Apr. 4, 2001—A comprehensive energy bill will be ready for US President George W. Bush this summer, predicted a key lawmaker Wednesday.

“We’ll see energy bills moving to the president’s desk this summer,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), speaking before the National Energy Marketers Association.

Barton declined to provide specific details on what a House version of the bill would include until after the White House issues its own recommendations later this spring (OGJ Online, Apr. 2, 2001).

In the near term, Barton, as chairman of the US House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, said he plans to officially unveil a separate “emergency” bill this week designed to help alleviate California power shortages and to prevent similar situations from happening in the Midwest and Northeast. A draft proposal is now being circulated among House members, and he hopes to hold hearings on the plan in early May.

“We’ve got to do something right now,” Barton said.

Meeting with reporters on the sidelines of the conference, Barton denied some Democratic opponents allegations that the “emergency” bill was “feel-good” legislation that would do little to fix California’s problems.

“We are seeking to clarify statues and expand authority to states. There is a lot of uncertainty out there. That is not ‘feel-good’ legislation,” Barton said.

The congressman would not detail if the bill was similar to earlier circulated drafts (OGJ Online, Mar. 23, 2001). However he stressed the bill would include provisions that were not necessarily specific to California.

Expanding Path 15
As reported previously on OGJ Online, the early draft includes provisions directing the Federal Energy Management Agency to prepare for blackouts by setting up an office in California, conducting an education campaign preparing for blackouts, and having an emergency plan ready to provide assistance during blackouts.

The list also includes a proposal for federal assistance to expand Path 15—the south-to-north transmission constraint on power shipments—as quickly as possible. Barton indicated that up to $300 million in federal money, possibly as loan guarantees, might be earmarked for that project.

The California grid operator has frequently blamed its inability to move power north as contributing to shortages in northern California. Among the ideas floated is to direct the Western Area Power Administration to take responsibility for the Path 15 expansion and authorize federal payment for all or part of the project.

Beyond expanding transmission capacity, however, Barton steadfastly ruled out any kind of government “bailout” such as wholesale price caps.

“Price caps are politically expedient. They hold down prices to the next election, if you are lucky,” he said.

After the emergency bill is finished, Barton said he hopes to shift attention to implementing the White House task force recommendations. Barton also said he expects to revisit federal electricity restructuring legislation that failed to pass Congress last year.

The congressmen said he disagreed with some lawmakers who allege California’s problems with its own electricity restructuring would doom the issue on Capitol Hill.

“You can’t say, great, let’s do nothing,” Barton noted. “California is the test case that shows us how not to do it.”