Barton plans vote next week on electricity reform bill

US Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of a US House energy subcommittee, Thursday said he expects to call a vote on an electricity supply and transmission reform bill in a week. After 2 days of hearings, Barton conceded the proposed legislation is not 'a perfect bill,' but the chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality said it was time for Congress to make 'hard choices' about electricity reform.

By the OGJ Online Staff

HOUSTON, Dec. 13 -- US Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of a US House energy subcommittee, Thursday said he expects to call a vote on an electricity supply and transmission reform bill in a week.

After 2 days of hearings, Barton conceded the proposed legislation is not "a perfect bill," but the chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality said it was time for Congress to make some "hard choices" about electricity reform.

"I believe we are close to consensus," he said, despite general criticism of provisions of the bill that witnesses said were too prescriptive and would reduce the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's flexibility in dealing with such issues a regional transmission organizations, transmission rate-setting, and ability to review and approve mergers.

Barton urged representatives of public power organizations, consumer groups, and electricity suppliers to work with members and their staff "to perfect" the bill. He added he hopes to send the bill to the full House Energy Committee on Energy and Commerce after mark up Dec. 20 for hearings, where is expected to get a relatively friendly reception from Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.)

Wednesday, Tauzin said it was time to address electricity. "When we passed comprehensive national energy policy legislation earlier this year, we said we would be adding electricity at a later time," he said. "That time is near."

Much of Thursday's debate turned on how much authority FERC should be given to regulate the electricity markets and how much should be required by law. In his comments Wednesday, Tauzin said the agency can help Congress, but the US markets "can�t rely on the FERC, alone, to do this for us. They may think they can do it all, and want to do it all, but there is only so much they can do. We as Congress need to give them guidance and the tools they need to keep protecting American ratepayers for the next 10 years and beyond."

Representing the America Public Power Association, CEO Alan Richardson called on the subcommittee to defer consider of the bill and let FERC exercise authority available under the Federal Power Act. Richardson said FERC in the past had been unwilling to exercise its existing authority appropriately, but recently has taken a new direction. APPA also opposed provisions that would repeal the Public Utility Holding Co. without including new provisions to protect consumers.

Provisions that would offer incentives for transmission rates would give "Congressional blessing to unjust and unreasonable rates," raising rates unnecessarily for consumers, said Glen English, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Speaking for the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, Robert Johnston said giving FERC the authority to order public power suppliers to join RTOs was unnecessary. "We have unique issues," he said, including taxation and bond issues, plus protection of native load customers. Moreover, he said, RTOs haven't yet proved their cost effectiveness in low cost regions of the country.

He noted the New York Independent System Operator estimated startup and operating costs would total about $40 million. Actual cost jumped to $100 million, five times the cost of the predecessor organization, he said.

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