House poised to pass legislation to keep power flowing

When the House of Representatives considers energy and environmental issues lately, the votes are almost always lopsided, with Democrats and Republicans split on such hot-button issues as offshore drilling and clean air regulations.

Don’t expect that same breakdown today.

In a rare moment of accord on energy and environmental policy, House Democrats and Republicans are expected to come together this afternoon to pass legislation that would insulate power utilities from environmental fines when the federal government orders them to keep generating electricity.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, aims to protect energy utilities that may run afoul of federal, state and local environmental laws when they keep generating power to prevent blackouts and keep the electric grid stable. The bill’s protection would apply whenever an electric utility complies with an Energy Department order to keep generating power to prevent problems with the grid.

Under the measure, the Energy Department would be required to consult with environmental regulators on ways to minimize the environmental effects of those directives. And the Energy Department orders would expire after 90 days, though they could be reissued.

The legislation has attracted several co-sponsors from Texas, including Democrats Gene Green of Houston and Charlie Gonzalez of San Antonio.

Seven years ago, 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.

According to Olson’s office, a Mirant power plant in San Francisco was taken to court after it kept running in 2001 under Energy Department orders.