Members Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Protect Electric Reliability and Resolve Conflicts in Federal Laws

March 28, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC - Energy and Commerce Reps. Pete Olson (R-TX), Lee Terry (R-NE), Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Gene Green (D-TX), Mike Doyle (D-PA), and Charles Gonzalez (D-TX) today introduced the Resolving Environmental and Grid Reliability Conflicts Act, H.R. 4273, which will ensure America's power companies are able to comply with DOE emergency orders to maintain grid reliability without facing penalties for violating potentially conflicting environmental laws.
 
The Federal Power Act authorizes the Department of Energy to order electric generating facilities to continue operating in order to avoid potential emergencies, including reliability-related emergencies. However, compliance with such an emergency order could trigger a violation of environmental laws and regulations, potentially exposing the generator to penalties and lawsuits. In 2005, Mirant (now GenOn) faced this dilemma when DOE ordered its Potomac River Generating Station to operate to protect the electric supply to Washington, DC. Mirant complied with the order but was later fined for a three hour NAAQS violation. Such conflicting legal mandates threaten the reliability of the grid and place power plant operators in the difficult position of having to choose compliance with one law over another.

In the coming months and years, DOE may be forced to rely on its emergency authority more often to avoid potential blackouts, resulting in greater occurrences of conflicts between emergency directives and environmental laws. Absent legislative action, American utility companies could be caught in a crossfire during times of an electric grid emergency. Companies would be forced to either shoulder heavy fines and liability risks associated with non-compliance of environmental regulations or disregard DOE emergency orders, thus jeopardizing grid reliability. This newly introduced bipartisan legislation makes an important clarification to the Federal Power Act so that utilities will not be forced to violate the law in order to keep the lights on.

"This common sense legislation will give peace of mind to all Americans facing the potential of rolling blackouts during the hot summer months," Olson said. "The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has already warned of rolling blackouts. Electricity providers asked to provide power during an emergency should no longer have to worry about being slapped with lawsuits and heavy fines. More importantly, no one should face a loss of power due to conflicting federal laws."

"The federal government should never put an individual or an organization in a position where it has to decide which law to violate," said Doyle. "The federal government shouldn't order companies to generate electricity to prevent a blackout, and then turn around and fine them for doing it. I'm sure most of my constituents would want to avoid the blackout. That's why I believe it's necessary to pass this bill protecting power companies from fines or lawsuits for complying with a federal government emergency directive to generate electricity."
 
"Drastic times call for drastic measures," said Terry. "During natural disasters, utilities are sometimes ordered to increase their output - to meet urgent needs. This legislation ensures that during such emergencies, utility providers are not penalized for doing what they're instructed to. Nebraskan utilities will benefit from this, as will utility companies all throughout our great country." 
 
"There currently exists a clear conflict in law and this bipartisan bill will ensure that our electric generating facilities do not have to fear legal repercussions when being ordered to run because of an emergency," said Green.
 
"This legislation ensures that power utilities are able to run in an emergency situation without being penalized by the EPA or sued by a third party," said Kinzinger. "This eliminates the issue that occurs when two government agencies give contradictory orders to a power utility and will instead provide a clearer, more expedited path to restore power during blackout periods."
 
Gonzalez said, "This legislation will ensure that energy companies no longer have to face the dilemma of trying to comply with outdated, conflicting rules and will be able to meet the critical energy needs of their community during an emergency. Additionally, I am proud that a reasonable solution is being reached in a commonsense, bipartisan manner."

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