House subcommittee begins markup on emergency power bill

A US House energy subcommittee is scheduled to begin voting Thursday on a bill to help California through its energy crisis, just days ahead of the scheduled release of the Bush Administration’s proposed energy policy.

Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House Commerce Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee, Wednesday released a new draft of his “Electricity Emergency Relief Act.” The White House has said it will unveil a task force energy recommendations May 15. To date, the Administration has kept a low profile concerning the Barton bill. Outside of commissioners from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission no Bush Administration witnesses appeared before the subcommittee.

Barton’s new draft deletes a controversial environmental provision included in earlier versions. During hearings on the bill, Democrats mocked a provision that would have allowed transmission lines to be built on federal lands, including national parks, noting it would have allowed power lines to be constructed around national monuments in the nation’s capital.

Democrats also claim four California Republicans will support their effort to amend the bill to cap wholesale electricity prices throughout the West, a proposal Barton opposes. Democrats say without a temporary cap prices will skyrockets this summer because electricity is short throughout the region.

During hearings on the bill, they claimed a temporary cap would allow supply to catch up with demand. Republicans argued caps would be counterproductive discouraging new generation. They also noted caps would not apply to electricity suppliers in Mexico or Canada who sell into the US market.

The most recent draft includes a provision proposed by Reliant Energy Inc. to establish a west-wide so-called “negawatts” market that would allow consumers to resell to a third party electricity they would otherwise be entitled to use. A proposed amendment would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “set rates, charges, and classification” for transactions within 30 days of the bill’s passage.

Other changes to early drafts delete sections on hydropower. Witnesses said they already had most of the authority proposed in the draft.

A section that would require payment guarantees for emergency power sales ordered by the government now includes caveats. If there is disagreement about price between buyer and seller, then gas prices will be determined by the President and electricity prices by FERC or the secretary of energy.

The Western Power Administration would be authorized to spend $220 million to expand its transmission system and relieve congestion on Path 15, the lines carrying power between northern and southern California. The new draft insures any proposal would continue to be subject to applicable st

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