April 08, 2004

IMAGINE THE moment. George W. Bush steps to the podium at Madison Square Garden. The roar of approval from his fellow Republicans is deafening as the president prepares to formally accept their nomination to seek a second term in the White House.

Then, suddenly, just as Mr. Bush is about to speak, the lights go out; the sound system goes dead; the air-conditioning clicks off.

Terrorism! Everyone suspects that at first. But they're wrong. It's just another particularly ill-timed power blackout in the Big Apple. A preventable disaster caused by a utility company that failed to follow safety procedures Congress has yet to make mandatory - even after a similar incident last summer shut off the juice for days to more than 40 million people in eight states and parts of Canada.

Admittedly, the odds of such a blackout disrupting the Republican National Convention in August are slim. And the GOP will likely be prepared with backup generators in any case.

A repeat of last summer's debacle is quite likely to occur at some point, however, until Congress enacts the reliability standards that are being held hostage to an internal Republican dispute over Mr. Bush's long-stalled energy bill.

Lawmakers should set aside that dispute and move quickly to enact a narrower proposal that would deal exclusively with electricity standards and penalties for utilities that fail to comply. There appears to be no disagreement in either party that such mandatory standards are needed.

Massive, cascading blackouts are not new, but they are getting worse. The first big blackout in November 1965 cut off power to about 30 million people in the Northeast for up to 13 hours. Other major outages have crippled Western states and parts of Mexico.

Task force after task force has recommended that voluntary reliability standards put in place in 1965 be stiffened through the force of federal law and oversight. The most recent such recommendation came this week from a joint U.S.-Canadian panel studying the reasons for last summer's grid collapse, which closed airports, schools and businesses and cost tens of billions of dollars.

Most or all of the consequences could have been avoided if an Ohio power company had been prepared, as it should have been, with emergency plans to contain the damage caused by three high-voltage lines that sagged onto untrimmed trees and short-circuited.

Even if Mr. Bush's comprehensive energy bill represented an enlightened approach to public policy, its failure to win enactment so far wouldn't justify further delay in approving the electricity standards. But this bill is a turkey, so laden with giveaways to the energy industry it makes many in his own party gag.

It's time for Mr. Bush to set the electricity standards free. If he doesn't, the trendy question this summer may not be "Where were you when the lights went out?" but "Who was in charge of the switch?"

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