Somewhat More Reliable Power

Crafting an energy bill for a nation with widely varying regional needs and resources was never going to be easy. Whether Republican congressional leaders have made enough compromises to pass the measure they unveiled on Saturday is far from clear.

One of the most unfortunate compromises was an agreement to double the amount of corn-based ethanol, a gasoline additive. But GOP leaders and the White House reckoned that without it, the bill had no chance of gaining support from the Senate's farm-state Democrats.

Other Democrats are troubled about provisions they say favor the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries, while doing little to clean the nation's air, reduce dependence on foreign oil, or protect consumers. In a nod to environmental defenders, however, GOP leaders dropped their perennial proposal to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

For many people, however, the question is whether the bill will prevent a recurrence of last summer's power blackouts in the Great Lakes region and parts of the Northeast.

The answer is a qualified yes.

The bill repeals the now-outdated Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which prevents the mergers and consolidation the industry needs to come up with the cash to repair old infrastructure and build new.

GOP leaders also included a provision that would allow the federal government to order the construction of new transmission lines if state governments fail to act, which should speed up the process.

Perhaps most important, it would allow the federal government to enforce rules that improve transmission-grid reliability. A US-Canadian industry group would draft reliability rules and submit them to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for approval. Grid operators could order a utility to alter its power output if lines become overloaded. Violations could earn a fine.

But the GOP proposal unfortunately postpones until 2007 the FERC's ability to force utilities into regional transmission organizations. This would leave the control of the grid seriously fragmented, especially in the vulnerable Midwest. It allows for voluntary organizations in the meantime, but energy officials say that's unlikely to do the job.

The bill is far from perfect, but it's a step in the right direction of ensuring reliable power.