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New Electric Grid Rules Gridlocked

A seven-month investigation into the nation's worst blackout is putting new pressure on Congress to boost the reliability of power grids — but legislation addressing the problem remains in limbo.

Nearly eight months after all or parts of eight states and sections of Canada went dark, a U.S.-Canadian task force on Monday called for urgent approval of mandatory reliability rules to govern the electric transmission industry.

Many of the voluntary rules, managed by a private, industry-sponsored group, were largely ignored by the Ohio power company and others whose failures led to the blackout, the task force said in a 228-page report.

"This report says brace yourself for another blackout," reports CBS News Correspondent Lou Miliano.

Most of the causes for the massive outage that cascaded from Michigan to New York on Aug. 14, 2003, were detailed in a preliminary report last November. On Monday the task force issued 46 recommendations, the first of which was to "make reliability standards mandatory and enforceable with penalties for noncompliance."

It's something the White House, a bipartisan array of lawmakers and industry representatives demanded within days after the lights went out last summer.

However, provisions to establish mandatory rules on the electricity industry, along with measures to make it easier to build transmission lines, have been caught up in a partisan fight over broader energy legislation.

As the task force report was being released Monday, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., took another stab at trying to get his energy bill out of the Senate, announcing he would attach it to a popular jobs bill.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also cited the blackout findings as a fresh reason to pass energy legislation. But Barton also has said he won't go along with an energy bill that doesn't provide liability protection to the makers of a gasoline additive, MTBE. That issue helped kill the energy bill — and its electricity section — late last year.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., whose state was hit by the blackout, has argued for a stand-alone electricity bill for months.

"Each day this legislation is not considered is another day consumers remain unnecessarily at risk of another blackout," Dingell said after Monday's report was released.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., co-sponsor of a separate bill that would address only electricity matters, said, "There's no good reason (for) ... letting this legislation get stuck in a political quagmire" of the broader energy bill.

The U.S.-Canadian task force said its seven-month investigation uncovered evidence that the industry's attempt at self-policing the reliability of the power grids is inadequate and could spawn another blackout.

There was a clear understanding long before the blackout that the Ohio region where the line problems began was highly vulnerable to grid instability, said the task force.

Had FirstEnergy Corp., the Ohio utility whose lines initially failed, and the grid monitoring organization in the Midwest followed industry-recommended standards, they would have been better prepared to deal with the situation, the report said.

Something as simple as shutting off 200 megawatts of power an hour before the blackout might have kept the problem from spreading, investigators said.

Investigators said they found at least seven violations of industry-sponsored North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) reliability rules linked to the blackout. The report also said NERC was too closely tied to industry and dependent on it for funding.

Since the blackout, NERC has begun a vigorous audit of the major transmission systems, aiming to complete the task before the heavy demand period begins this summer. It also has argued forcefully for federally mandated reliability standards.

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