The Blame Game 

Who's responsible for last week's massive power failure? Why, nobody, of course.

It's the All-American Blame Game! A finger-pointing festival. A perfectly circular firing squad of "told you so." Bureaucrats perfecting their CYA moves. Politicians jumping on the opportunity to make points against the other guys. And so's your old man.

U.S. officials quickly blamed a Canadian plant for touching off the mess. Mel Lastman, the clearly sleepless and exhausted mayor of Toronto, replied bitterly: "Tell me, have you ever heard the United States take blame for anything? This is no different."

It would be a refreshing change, would it not, if somebody just stood up and said, "My fault."

The early book has the great power outage of '03 beginning with FirstEnergy of Akron, Ohio. But there has been no shortage of warnings that the grid was elderly, frail, inadequate, could short out, would short out, should short out at any time.

Those regulatory tigers at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the guys who stood by doing nothing while California got ripped off for $45 billion, have in fact presciently warned that the Midwestern grid is a mess. So they get lots of points in the "I told you so" category. Not that they did anything about it.

The Clinton administration, in the person of former energy secretary and now governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, is also in the clear, having tried to "do something" back in 1998, to the usual chorus of boos and jeers from the Republican Congress. This naturally did not stop Rep. Tom DeLay, the Exterminator, from blaming it all on the Democrats as soon as the lights went out.

The Republican theme song is that if only Congress had passed Dick Cheney's perfectly darling National Energy Plan, this would never have happened.

Since the Cheney plan, hatched in secret with lobbyists from Enron and other players, is all about producing more power, not transmitting it safely and reliably, this may strike some as beside the point.

According to Public Citizen, the Cheney Plan "contains billions of dollars in handouts to nuclear, coal, and oil companies, including some of the wealthiest corporations in the world. It would repeal time-honored consumer protection law and the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, and thus advance the destructive path of deregulation and encourage the same type of behavior that gave us Enron and the California energy crisis."

Among the bill's dumbest provisions:

n It reauthorizes the Price-Anderson Act, which caps the liability of nuclear operators in the event of an accident or attack, thereby making taxpayers liable for nuclear catastrophes (a great example of privatizing profits and socializing risks).

n It authorizes the Nuclear Power 2010 program, which would grant federal land and taxpayer money to energy companies for building new nuclear plants.

n It does nothing to improve fuel economy of vehicles and contains provisions that invite the auto industry to sue to delay increases in fuel-economy standards.

Now, here's an interesting joker in the deck. Who do you suppose wanted FERC to expand its jurisdiction to cover all aspects of electricity transmission?

Why, Ken Lay, the CEO of Enron.

For the first two years of this administration, what Ken Lay wanted, Ken Lay got. In his famous memo to Cheney to deter FERC from imposing caps on wholesale power prices so the California rip-off could continue, Lay also urged that FERC "develop reliability standards and enforce those standards" for the grid.

So guess what? Cheney's plan recommends that FERC "improve the reliability of the interstate transmission system" and "develop legislation providing for enforcement of a self-regulatory organization subject to FERC oversight."

In 2001, Ken Lay had a come-to-Jesus session with Curtis Hebert, then chairman of FERC, saying that if he didn't get on board with Enron's program, he was gone.

So Hebert was replaced by Pat Wood, who came recommended by Ken Lay. So did another FERC appointee, Nora Mead Brownell.

The White House then denied that Lay and Enron had any undue influence over national energy policy, which was certainly a big relief to everybody.

Before we all get lost forever in finger-pointing, let me point out the fundamental question here: Given that our economy, security, and basic services are totally dependent on the electric grid, do we really want to turn it over to those who only seek short-term profits?

Or to point the finger up into the wind: Do we really have to suffer through another blackout or two before we re-regulate these guys?

Molly Ivins writes for the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram and Creators Syndicate.

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