Key U.S. congressional representatives are deeply split on the issue of retail electric market reform, dimming the prospects for legislation this session.
The representatives told a forum hosted by Atlantic Monthly magazine and the Edison Electric Institute last week that the issue basically is on hold until the Clinton administration submits its proposed legislation to Congress.
DOE stanceEnergy Sec. Bill Richardson said the bill would be sent to Capitol Hill early in April.
He explained, "It's still being fine-tuned. We didn't exactly have a lot of support for the legislation that we submitted last year."
He said 17 states have passed their own bills, two more are on the verge, and most of the others are considering legislation. He said federal legislation is needed to facilitate the state processes and for the optimum operation of retail markets.
Richardson said the administration bill would help foster development of new energy-saving technologies but would not attempt a "back-door" implementation of the Kyoto global warming protocol.
Congressional viewsSen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alas.), Energy Committee chairman, spoke of the need for a comprehensive electricity bill covering a number of key issues. He was concerned about a recent draft report from the Department of Agriculture that warned that reform could hurt rural electricity consumers.
"If the rural consumer is subjected to substantial increases, the bill is not going anywhere, at least not in my committee," Murkowski warned Richardson. The secretary replied that the administration bill would let rural consumers "opt out" of reform.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the ranking Democrat on the Energy Committee, disagreed with Murkowski on the scope of the bill. He said only a "modest" bill addressing a few key issues had any chance of passage.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) chairs the House Energy and Power Subcommittee, which is the first stop for electricity legislation in that body. He predicted his subcommittee would mark up a bill this spring or early summer and report it to the House floor in late summer or early fall.
"I think we can do it this year," he said, but in a concession to political realities, he said passage must come "before the first presidential primary in the year 2000."
However, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the full committee, was much more pessimistic.
He said Congress has been unable to pass a bill the past 4-5 years and appears no closer to consensus today.
Other viewsAt a recent hearing of Barton's subcommittee, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Elizabeth Moler said congressional inaction is frustrating further progress to build an even more efficient U.S. power market.
She said a reform bill should offer customer choice, open access to interstate transmission lines, ensure electric grid reliability, repeal the Public Utility Holding Company Act and the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, and adopt a market-oriented approach to renewable power.
Other witnesses said legislation should address utilities "stranded costs" that result from decontrol, the grandfathering of state reform laws, and whether states should be given a deadline for providing retail choice.
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