COMMENTARY: Dancing with the devil

Pam Boschee, Managing Editor

In the month’s time since my last commentary, things have drastically changed. As our nation moves forward in its daily life following the violence of September 11, the greater context for that life seems to contain a nagging, nebulous quality of uncertainty, even apprehension.

The insecurity simmering as a result of this unprecedented, unimaginable event has us discussing and demanding security-across all sectors, including the electric utility industry.

Here’s where I would like to interject a word of caution. Let’s be careful that attitudes of “whatever it takes” don’t lead us down the road to acquiescence-with subsequent regrets.

I’m concerned that proposals for legislation and regulation, which may once have been scrutinized, will instead now be couched as in the interest of security, and therefore, championed as the “right” things to do. The possibility exists that anyone who does not comply with something touted as being in the interest of national security will be viewed as an insensitive, unpatriotic heretic.

How much authority are we willing to grant? How far should we go in scrambling to shore up security? Isn’t scrambling exactly what the perpetrators hoped would undermine our ability to reason?

The Bush administration, prior to this event, began the process of drafting an “Electric Reliability and Transmission Act” that would expand the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s authority in several areas. FERC would be granted authority to site transmission lines, but only as a last resort if states do not approve projects “that are in the national interest.”

Those last six words now take on much more significance in this country’s changed context, particularly while the lingering smoke, shattered lives and thousands of deaths make up our framework.

In early August, the Western Governors’ Association sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee stating it opposed “unwarranted and inappropriate” proposals to preempt state authority over transmission line siting. “We oppose any schemes to empower FERC or the [Department of Energy] and relegate the states to an advisory role to those distant federal agencies,” they said. “The agency [FERC] does not have the expertise, resources, or local knowledge to successfully execute such responsibilities.”

Will those 12 governors who signed that letter have the courage to challenge federal usurpation of state authority in the future, especially when an issue is “in the national interest?”

Also, what effect will this security concern have on public opinion, already not favorable, toward the siting of new power plants, transmission lines, substations, natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure? The NIMBY (not in my backyard) protest might soon add “we don’t want to be near a vulnerable target” as another point of persuasion.

Yes, we do need to take a look at security across our country, across all sectors. We’ve probably needed to do so for quite some time. We’ve been shaken from complacency, but let’s be wary of being pushed into panic.

Allegations at this time are directed at Osama bin Laden and his followers. They undoubtedly derive great pleasure from any instances of U.S. overreaction. Until we definitively strike a blow at the perpetrators, we are dancing with the devil. And when you’re dancing with the devil, it’s imperative that you lead.

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