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Capitol Hill Spotlight On Blackout

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham promised a focused investigation Wednesday into the cause of the nation's worst blackout and told a congressional hearing that a U.S.-Canadian task force "will follow the facts where they lead us."

Abraham, in remarks prepared for the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, refused to speculate on what triggered the Aug. 14 blackout that darkened a huge swath of the nation from Michigan to New York. "Such speculation would be premature," he said.

He said he and his Canadian counterpart, Herb Dhaliwal, had agreed "to a narrowly focused investigation to determine precisely what happened ... (and) why the blackout was not contained." In a second phase of the investigation, he said, the group will make recommendations on "what should be done to prevent the same thing from happening again."

Abraham gave no timetable, but has repeatedly said he wants to wrap up the investigation into the country's worst power blackout as quickly as possible.

Wednesday's hearing was the first on Capitol Hill in response to the blackout. Lawmakers promised to address changes in the nation's electricity grid as part of a broad energy bill. Most agree that Congress needs to enact federally mandated transmission reliability rules, instead of the voluntary system now in place. The proposal has broad bipartisan support.

Abraham has called for such rules.

The governors of Ohio, Michigan and New York were to testify later in favor of new reliability requirements, as was the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which under several proposals would enforce the regulations.

"Currently there is no direct federal authority or responsibility for the reliability of the transmission grid," FERC Chairman Pat Wood said in testimony prepared for the House committee hearing.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the committee chairman, wants the new reliability standards as part of a broader package of electricity provisions in a comprehensive energy bill now before Congress.

But some Democrats argue Congress should move separately to enact the new rules. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said Tuesday he would introduce independent grid reliability legislation this week. He acknowledged, however, there was no way to tell whether such rules would have prevented the blackout.

Several witnesses scheduled to appear at the two-day hearing were expected to complain that the widespread of power outage Aug. 14 may have had as much to do with communications breakdowns as anything else.

Michigan utilities and transmission company executives have told House investigators they were perplexed about why they were not notified sooner by Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. of transmission failures in a number of its Ohio power lines during the hour before the blackout.

Whatever triggered the power failures, it is agreed that the blackout swept though lines running over the northern leg of the so-called Lake Erie Loop from Ohio through Michigan, into Canada and down through New York state.

Had Michigan power officials been informed of Ohio's early problems "they may have been able to craft a contingency plan for energy demand and delivery and avoid the cascading failure," Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said in testimony prepared for the House hearing.

The International Transmission Co., which operates a major Michigan power grid, complained that it did not even get "a courtesy call" and was unaware of Ohio's transmission failures until two minutes before the blackout cascade began.

By then it was at "the point of no return," Granholm said she was told by the Michigan company's officials.

FirstEnergy Corp., repeatedly has dismissed the notion that a single event in its system caused the blackout.

"The events of the day ... involved thousands of separate and discrete incidents across a widespread, multisystem region," H. Peter Burg, FirstEnergy's chairman and chief executive, wrote House committee investigators.

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