Associated Press WASHINGTON - House Democrats called a GOP energy plan aimed at helping California "an assault on the nation's environmental laws" Thursday and said it does little to ease the state's impending summer power shortages and soaring electricity prices.
The legislation would allow a waiver of clean air and endangered species protection rules in power emergencies and allow power lines to crisscross national parks and wilderness areas, bill critics said at a House hearing.
Republicans countered that the final decisions on environmental waivers would be left to state governors. They said it would provide flexibility for state officials - in California and elsewhere with power shortages - to squeeze as much electricity as possible out of their power grids.
California officials have predicted peak power shortages of as much as 3,700 megawatts this summer and expect 30 days or more of potential rolling blackouts, said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, lead sponsor of the bill.
"If there's something we can do to help, even a little, we should do it," said Barton. He said his legislation attempts to reduce electricity demand, increase power supplies and improve the power transmission systems in the West.
But Democrats made clear their opposition not only on environmental grounds, but because the GOP bill ignores calls for price controls on wholesale electricity markets in the West to rein in costs that have soared to 10 times what they were a year ago and threaten to go higher.
Wholesale price regulation is up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which so far has refused to impose price caps on California or other Western power markets, although it approved limited price regulations last week.
With the three FERC commissioners awaiting to testify before Barton's Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Democrats attacked what they view as commission inaction.
To the tune of "California Dreamin", the 1960s Mamas and Papas song, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., intoned: "Blackouts every day, FERC just takes a walk. And Let's the gougers play."
FERC Chairman Curtis Hebert, a Republican and staunch free-market advocate, testified that the commission has taken actions "that can help mitigate the problems" in California and the Northwest. But he reiterated his opposition to interfering further in the power markets.
"Market prices are sending the right signals to both sellers and buyers," said Hebert.
Like Hebert, most congressional Republicans, including Barton and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, strongly oppose price regulation. Nevertheless, Democrats vowed to try to add a price cap provision to the bill when it comes up for a vote, probably next week.
Such an amendment, which would require support from at least several of the California Republicans on the subcommittee to pass, would require FERC to impose price caps on the Western power markets.
The Bush administration also has been adamantly opposed to price regulation, a position reiterated in a speech this week by Vice President Dick Cheney in which he outlined a broad energy blueprint heavily weighed toward long-range programs.
In contrast, the House legislation is viewed as stopgap energy bill to address the West's supply problems this summer. It includes a mix of measures from expanding Daylight Savings Times and easing some environmental requirements on current and new power plants to giving the Energy Department the green light to open power transmission corridors on federal land.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the full committee's ranking Democrat, called it "an assault on the nation's environmental laws … in the name of energy" because it would make it easier to waive clean air rules for power plants and fish protection requirements at hydroelectric dams.
"This legislation creates massive (environmental) loopholes," added Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., including the "construction of power lines through national parks and wilderness areas."
The legislation directs the secretary of energy to develop corridors through federal lands for power lines, while providing no limit on what kinds of lands might be targeted, including national parks and refuges.
Also of concern to environmentalists is a provision that - upon the request of a governor - would allow hydroelectric power producers in an electricity emergency to run dams at maximum output, overriding federal rules and court decisions for protection of fish such as several Northwest salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act.