Electric Restructuring Legislation: Handicapping the 106th Congress
Will inaction in the Senate and House prompt FERC to move ahead?
About 36 bills with the word "electric" in them were introduced in the 105th Congress. According to Capitol Hill and industry association staff, the 106th Congress, officially begun Jan. 6, appears likely to see fewer restructuring bills, but steadfast champions.
Likelier still are developments outside of Congress that will shape energy policy and perhaps beat legislators to the punch. That is especially true of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which planned early this year to meet with state regulators on reliability and independent regional transmission organizations, or RTOs.
In the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Chairman Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) has promised to hold electric restructuring hearings and introduce "chairman's mark" legislation. In the House Commerce Committee, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) presides over his last Congress as committee chair, meaning that there's a good chance of hearings in that forum as well.
The retirement of Senate energy committee ranking minority member Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) and House Subcommittee on Energy and Power Chairman Dan Schaefer (R-Colo.) also promises to bring new players into the fray. Unclear is whether the replacements will be as strong proponents of renewable energy as Schaefer or Bumpers.
At press time, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) stepped into Schaefer's subcommittee seat. In January, J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) who has a long history of working with utility issues, emerged as the new House speaker to replace Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.). Livingston resigned during presidential impeachment proceedings after admitting to marital infidelities.
With the entry of Barton, there's an interesting subcommittee combination with minority leader Ralph M. Hall, who's also from Texas. Meanwhile, with Bumpers' leave-taking, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) becomes the ranking minority member on the Senate energy committee.
Handicapping bills in Congress requires speaking with Hill committee staff and the government relations staff of industry associations. Few staffers feel comfortable prognosticating on the record. But on background, their anonymous conversational currency is worth repeating, since it sometimes rubs against hard-grained party position.
One Senate energy committee staffer looked back to put into perspective the slow march toward restructuring. It doesn't have to be solely a federal legislative activity, he says.
"In 1983, when we tried to deregulate natural gas, Sen. Bradley offered an amendment to require basically open access to transportation of natural gas," according to the Hill staffer. "The bill got out of committee but failed on the floor. FERC went ahead and did it, order 436 ¼ and so forth. As a result of that, we never had to do anything on that issue. So sometimes, Congress should legislate where it needs to legislate. And if it doesn't need to legislate, why legislate?"
This comes from a committee whose chairman has been very vocal in promising to introduce legislation. But this year, will federal legislation matter?
Back in October, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson gave the FERC authority under Section 202(a) of the Federal Power Act to partition the nation into regional grid reliability districts and RTOs. Then the FERC issued