Last week's massive power failure in the northeastern and Great Lakes states and neighboring Canadian provinces was marked not only by the temporary shutoff of the comfortable life we experience in North America, but also by the spectacle of quibbling politicos who have been repeatedly warned of the danger of crippling blackouts.
Squirming in the glare of adverse publicity is FirstEnergy, the utility conglomerate that includes Toledo Edison and other providers serving 4.3 million customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The company's operating culture does not enjoy a stellar reputation, stemming in large part from its mishandling of nuclear facilities and other current problems.
Accommodating ratings-driven news media, which demand closure in every news cycle, political blatherskites lined up in Sound Bite Alley to begin pointing fingers. They should really be called “blatherskates” because they blather on and then skate to the sidelines to avoid possible adverse fallout. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York (certainly no Rudy Giuliani) cited reports that the breakdown began in Canada. No slouch at counterpunching, Mayor Mel Lastman of Toronto asked rhetorically when Americans ever accepted the blame for anything. Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich lashed out at his old utility foe, and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson went over the top by suggesting that this country has a “Third World” transmission grid.
There should and will be intensive investigations of the latest incident. The larger issue is not so much who started it, but what can be done to fix the transmission system, regardless of what world it is in. Are the attention spans of officeholders or voters long enough to contemplate solutions, much less act on them? The omens are not hopeful.
Regional power transmission arrangements are based on an era of regulated utilities, when cost of improvements could be included in the rate structure. The North American power grid provides feast for some areas, famine for others, and inadequate inter-connection wires between have and have-not regions, which includes the Great Lakes basin and northeastern states and provinces.
We cannot turn the clock back to an era of complete public supervision of private utilities, but the movement toward deregulation has slowed, partly because it promised more than it can deliver.
Preoccupied with its Iraqi occupation (including restoration of reliable power in a land where snipers and bombers roam freely), the White House has little intellectual or financial capital for dealing with this crisis or breaking the congressional gridlock over energy issues.
Unless we are willing to accept blackouts as a normal course of affairs in this country and Canada, both countries will have to put aside the usual irritants and seek a common course of action. And Congress must take a firm hand, preferably putting the inevitable investigation into the hands of lawmakers so solidly entrenched that they can accept the risk of upsetting their constituents.
The cost of fixing the electric grid is not astronomical, but it will be high enough, and it should have priority over such controversial issues as drilling for oil in wilderness areas Those politicians who fear to grasp the sparking wire should remember that domestic issues generally play a greater impact on elections than world problems.