Grid reliability bill heads to Senate in time for summer heat

The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation that would shield electric utilities from environmental fines and lawsuits if they keep power flowing in emergencies.

The measure, which passed by voice vote, now heads to the Senate just as mercury begins rising for the summer and, sponsors hope, in time to get the legislation to President Barack Obama’s desk.

Sponsored by Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, and first advanced last year, the bill since has been revised in response to concerns from some environmental groups and congressional Democrats. It now boasts broad bipartisan support from the likes of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

The measure would block power utilities from being hit with fines and citizen lawsuits for running afoul of environmental regulations in cases where they comply with Energy Department orders to keep generating electricity in the name of grid reliability. Federal, state and local regulators would effectively be barred from fining utilities for emissions during the emergencies.

Related story: Summer demand may raise heat on electric grid

Although the Energy Department has the authority to order plants to keep generating power during weather-related outages, equipment failures, or when electricity dips too low, the directives sometimes force companies to briefly run afoul of clean air regulations. In remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday, Olson said “these conflicting federal laws” present power utilities with a difficult choice.

“In those rare instances when the authority is invoked, we should not punish generators that are simply following orders from the federal government to help keep power on in an emergency,” Olson said in prepared remarks.

According to Olson’s office, there have been roughly a half dozen such Energy Department orders in the past three decades.

At least a few such instances recently were followed by lawsuits and fines. 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.

The legislation includes environmental safeguards meant to prevent abuse. For instance, the bill would require the Energy Department to consult with regulators on ways to minimize the environmental effects of the grid reliability orders. Under a deal brokered with congressional Democrats, the directives also would automatically expire after 90 days, under the legislation, though the Energy Department could reissue them.

Some environmentalists have raised concerns with the sweep of the bill, suggesting that barring regulators from enforcing environmental laws would set a bad precedent, in the absence of pressing need.

Supporters now are focused on navigating the relatively non-controversial bill through the Senate, possibly by embedding it in slightly related legislation. A similar approach was considered with cybersecurity legislation after the House passed a nearly identical grid reliability bill late last year. Time ran out before supporters could advance the bill through the Senate.