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Blackout: More light on energy issues

The power goes off for 12 to 15 hours in the northeast, and you would think it was the end of the world from the media coverage. Residents of Memphis, Tenn., go 12 to 15 days without electricity following a massive windstorm, and it barely draws a blip on the national radar.

As unjust as it may seem, the fact is that anything that happens along the Washington-New York-Boston corridor will command much more media attention than events in the hinterlands. And that may be the key to the fate of the energy bill that Congress will consider when it returns in September.

When the Senate passed its version of the bill — actually the same legislation it approved in 2002 when Democrats controlled the chamber — July 25, Republicans said they would rewrite the bill in conference.

Ostensibly, Rep. Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sen. Pete Domenici, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair, could produce legislation more to their liking out of the glare of the publicity that surrounded the Senate deliberations on the bill.

That scenario changed when the lights went out across Ohio and Canada and into New York. Now every national media outlet will be watching the House-Senate energy conference committee.

“This outage clearly demonstrates how close the nation is to its energy production and distribution limit,” said Domenici. “I hope that when Congress returns the House-Senate conference on an energy policy bill will make rapid progress.”

“We simply can't afford to wait any longer,” said Tauzin. “Our economy and our way of life are at stake.”

Those who have been following the energy bill know that its prospects were dim until the blackout focused new attention on it. Even before the Senate voted out the old bill, the two chambers were far apart on numerous issues.

New Mexico's Domenici reportedly favors more incentives for alternative energy sources such as wind farms and solar panels, while Tauzin, who has represented Louisiana's oil and gas industries for decades, prefers encouraging more oil and gas exploration.

While it's not a lot of money, one provision in the House ag appropriations bill is telling: it reduces spending for a renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements program from $23 million to $3 million.

Tauzin also opposes Senate provisions that would double the use of ethanol in gasoline and provide $16 billion in tax breaks and incentives to promote energy production and conservation.

As the lights were still coming back on, Republicans and Democrats were blaming each other for the power grid failures. Some analysts said the northeast blackout even cast embattled California Gov. Gray Davis in a better light since the power never stayed off more than a few hours in his state.

Whatever the impact on the California recall vote and next year's national elections, farmers can hope that the spotlight will stay on the energy bill long enough to produce legislation that will place more emphasis on renewable energy sources.


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