The Bush administration rushed to defend itself yesterday from accusations that reluctance to upset its friends in the energy industry was to blame for the regulatory chaos leading to last week's massive power blackout across the north-eastern United States and Canada.
The lights may be barely back on and the cause of the electricity failure still subject to preliminary investigation, but that has not prevented finger-pointing from beginning in earnest. And it is the White House - 18 months after dodging a bullet over the collapse of Enron, the politically juiced Texas energy trading giant - that is finding itself in the hot seat.
President Bush's energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, popped up on the Sunday TV talk shows to insist the administration was doing everything it could to update an electrical grid that, by his own admission, was already obsolescent at a time of tremendous growth in demand.
"We've identified the corridors where we need more transmission," he said. "We've been working with the states to upgrade and improve the identification of new technology. We've invested more than 50 per cent in our budget on research." None of that, however, answered the crucial question, which is how the most advanced economy in the world could experience the biggest blackout in its history and not even know why.
Writing in The New York Times, President Clinton's energy secretary, Bill Richardson, accused the Bush White House and the Republican-controlled Congress of stalling on legislation to force power companies to take measures guaranteeing grid reliability. Very similar criticisms were voiced by some of the leading contenders for next year's Democratic presidential nomination.
"Just two years ago, [President Bush] and his allies in Congress blocked a Democratic proposal to invest $350m in upgrading America's electrical grid system," said the Florida Senator Bob Graham. "The blackout is further evidence that America needs to invest in its infrastructure."
Investigators have narrowed down the origin of the blackout to a number of high-voltage transmission lines near Cleveland, Ohio. Just over an hour before the lights went out, the first 345-kilovolt power line went down. A parallel line that automatically picked up the slack then overloaded, sagged and hit a tree, causing it to shut down.
Those failures apparently initiated a chain reaction throughout the vast area administered by the North American Electric Reliability Council. FirstEnergy, the utility responsible for the downed Ohio lines, said it did not become aware of the problem fast enough because its alarm system did not kick in. That does not explain, however, how the rest of the north-east was taken unawares. But most energy experts agree on the root causes of a failure many of them have been predicting for years.
Deregulation of the power industry has left energy companies with insufficient incentive to invest in new transmission lines or enough generating capacity.
In California, affected by rolling blackouts a couple of years ago, public utility regulators went so far as to accuse private-sector companies of artificially engineering a crisis for financial gain. That charge was directed at the White House, because many of the companies involved had close ties to the Bush administration, and because federal regulators did little to relieve the pressure on Californian consumers. Enron was a key player, both as an energy supplier and as one of the architects of California's ill-conceived energy deregulation.
But this is a bipartisan problem long predating President Bush's arrival in the White House. With corporate interests lobbying both main parties, no consensus has been reached on how to regulate the industry or provide incentives for its growth.
Maureen Dowd wrote in yesterday's New York Times: "The only illumination in the blackout was this: [politicians] have been holding the energy bill hostage to their special interests." Community leaders, meanwhile, are taking extraordinary measures to ensure no further blackouts today. In Detroit, the big three US car makers and other industries will take the day off to make sure demand stays low.Reuse content