Sunday, September 7, 2003

Congress should heed blackout's warning and act

By George Voinovich
Guest columnist

As Congress returns to Washington this week, I expect members will come back anxious to act on some pretty big issues, not the least of which will be energy policy. Hopefully they will come back interested in working together to help prevent the recurrence of the electrical blackout that recently struck Ohio and more than 40 million other people in North America.

The blackout's timing was uncanny because Congress was rewriting federal energy policy when it left town for August recess. In fact, much of the past two years has been spent on the issue, but partisan fights have prevented progress. Last year Congress failed to reach agreement on a final bill and the version passed by the Senate this year, despite some highpoints, is weak and must be revisited.

Manufacturing and farming are energy-intensive activities, so it should be no surprise that I have been closely involved in the energy debate. Making sure that Ohio has continued access to low-cost energy is critical to keeping and creating new jobs, and is a major priority of mine.

I helped draft many of the provisions in this year's energy bill, including one to increase nationwide use of ethanol, a corn-based gasoline additive that reduces harmful air emissions. Ohio's wide use of ethanol has helped bring all 88 counties into compliance with current air-quality standards. That it is made from corn - and that its demand will increase - is good news for Ohio's farmers.

Though continued research into the blackout's cause must continue -and two days of hearings in the House of Representatives this week have explored the causes - two conclusions are becoming clear: our nation needs to be able to generate more electricity and we need to modernize the systems for getting that electricity to businesses and homes. A subcommittee hearing I will chair next week in the Senate will explore how we move forward on these and other issues to prevent a recurrence.

With the demand for electricity expected to grow 42 percent over the next 20 years, there's no question that we must increase generation capacity for future economic growth and job creation.

Oddly enough, at a time when we need to generate more electricity, some are trying to limit our choices for generating it. Legislation introduced by Senators Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., Tom Carper, D-Del., Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., would essentially force all electricity generation to switch to natural gas and away from coal.

Coal is our cheapest, most plentiful energy resource and has become increasingly cleaner thanks to new clean coal technology. Furthermore, there isn't enough natural gas to go around. If all electricity had to be produced from natural gas, it would severely stress supply and send costs through the roof.

Those who would suffer most would be residential customers who use gas to heat their homes, especially low-income families and the elderly. Heating costs are already too high, with most families in Ohio having seen their natural gas costs double in recent years. Farmers are already paying too much for the natural gas used to make their fertilizer, and plastics companies - major Ohio employers - are already paying sky-high prices for the natural gas used to make their raw materials. All would see their costs rise.

Limiting our energy sources and putting all of our eggs in one basket isn't the way to go. Such a move would only lead to massive job losses, higher energy costs, and economic decline - not to mention more blackouts. Instead we should be finding environmentally responsible ways to expand the full range of energy sources: natural gas, renewables, coal, petroleum and nuclear.

The President's Clear Skies plan encourages the development of a balanced collection of energy sources and reduces harmful air pollutants by historic levels, which is why I am one of its main proponents in the Senate. There must be a renewed push for passage of this plan when Congress returns.

Generating more electricity accomplishes little if it can't get to where it's needed. Though unsightly and never a popular neighbor, transmission lines are simply a must-have fact of life. Therefore let's make sure the ones we have get the job done and if we have to upgrade the electrical grid, let's do it with due diligence and efficiency.

I've been concerned with our aging transmission grid for some time and have anticipated the need to upgrade it. However, the current process for siting new transmission lines, with its redundant and cumbersome reviews by various government agencies, is a barrier to modernization. Bipartisan legislation I sponsored last year would reform this process, guaranteeing public comment and environmental reviews, but it was resisted. These reforms should be part of any energy bill that passes.


U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, is chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee.

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