House bill would suspend environmental penalties when blackouts loom

The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would give electric utilities a free pass for keeping power flowing when the government orders them to continue operations, even if that means running afoul of environmental mandates.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, was unanimously approved by a voice vote, ensuring an early start for a rare piece of energy legislation that has broad, bipartisan appeal on Capitol Hill. Although the House passed a similar bill last August, it was too late to advance the measure in the Senate before the last Congress adjourned.

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The measure responds to a handful of incidents where power utilities have faced fines and citizen lawsuits after complying with Energy Department orders to continue running to ensure reliability of the the electric grid.

For instance, in 2005, the Energy Department ordered Mirant (now GenOn) to keep its Potomac River Generating Station running to ensure power would keep flowing to customers in the nation’s capital. After complying, the company was hit with a fine from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for violating ambient air quality standards. And according to Olson’s office, Mirant was taken to court after it kept a San Francisco power plant running in 2001 beyond operating limits, under Energy Department orders.

Olson’s bill would insulate utilities from penalties under federal, state and local environmental laws whenever they comply with Energy Department orders to keep generating power to prevent blackouts and keep the electric grid stable.

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But under the legislation, the Energy Department would be required to consult with environmental regulators on ways to minimize the environmental effects of those grid reliability directives. And the Energy Department’s orders would expire after 90 days, though they could be reissued.

Olson cast the bill as a sensible solution to a problem most likely to surface as summer approaches and customers start cranking up the AC.

“Texas and other states are being warned by electricity regulators that reserve margins could dip dangerously low this summer,” Olson said. “The bipartisan support for this bill is proof that we can find common ground when working to address a critical fault in federal law, protect the environment and provide a reliable energy supply to all Americans.”