WASHINGTON – Though the power returned within a day to many areas darkened by the historical blackout of 2003 (search), politicians are unlikely to forget the energy issue during the 2004 election.
Less than 24 hours after a power failure set off a cascading effect that left 50 million Northeastern U.S. residents in the dark, at least two presidential candidates accused the Bush administration of failing in its energy policy.
"The unfortunate events on the East Coast, parts of the Midwest and in Canada yesterday are further evidence that the Bush administration is inexorably tied to Persian Gulf oil and old energy, and is incapable of devising a comprehensive, forward-looking energy strategy," Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) said in a statement Friday.
"If it weren't for this administration's obsession with giveaways to their friends in the oil business, Congress likely would have passed an energy bill last year, parts of which were designed to strengthen and modernize the electric grid," said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search).
But political analyst Larry Sabato suggested that President Bush, who has so far been unsuccessful in pushing a comprehensive energy bill through a reluctant Congress, just needs to stay on message to keep his support in 2004.
"I think it's going to be a bumper strip that is going to help President Bush. Where is environmentalism strongest? In the Northeast. Where is the power blackout? In the Northeast. All President Bush has to say on energy policy is, 'Remember the blackout?'" Sabato said.
"He doesn't really have to change the direction he's been going [in] since he was elected -- that we have to increase capacity, that we need to look at alternative forms of energy," said Republican strategist Terry Holt. "And I don't think there are any pitfalls here. I think he just makes the case that the energy capacity in this country needs to be increased."
On Friday, Bush said he has been discussing the need for modernizing the energy industry since before taking office. He added that the legislation he supports addresses the very issue that is suspected of causing the massive power failures -- wildly fluctuating voltage that led transformers to automatically switch off.
"I think part of the plan recognizes that the grid needs to be modernized, that the delivery system needs to be modernized. Obviously, something like this isn't going to happen overnight," Bush said, stopping to speak to reporters as he cleaned hiking trails at San Diego Mountains National Recreation Area.
"But it begins to address the problem that this particular incident has made abundantly clear to the American people -- that we've got an antiquated system and now we've got to figure out what went wrong and how to address it, and I am confident we will," he said.
What all sides agree on is that difficult choices must be made now that it's clear that demand has outpaced system capacities.
"The problem is we're a superpower with a third-world grid. We need a new grid," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was energy secretary under Bill Clinton. "It takes a crisis, unfortunately, in America sometimes, to take the steps that are necessary."
The North American Electric Reliability Council estimates it will take $56 billion to upgrade electrical grids adequately across the country, money electric companies don't want to pay.
Legislatively, Congress has long been resistant to changes in energy policy, in part because it means making hard choices that are sure to annoy constituents from environmentalists to suburban homeowners who don't want power lines and electrical facilities in their neighborhoods.
To get anything done, however, Bush will likely need to employ his political capital and may find himself looking for compromises with Democrats as he has done before.
The Republican-led House passed an energy bill earlier this year. Before it left for its August recess, the Senate approved a version similar to a Democratic-sponsored bill from the last Congress.
Democrats say the Senate version specifically addresses the issues encompassed in Thursday's blackout -- finding "best practices for critical energy infrastructure assurance" and protecting against, mitigating the effect of and improving the ability "to recover from disruptive incidents affecting critical energy infrastructure."
In contrast, the Republican energy bill abandoned by the Senate but similar to the House version does not contain either of these provisions. Democrats say the Republican bill also would have impeded the ability of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to respond to multi-state energy crises and problems until July 2005. It's unclear whether FERC will review or take action on Thursday's blackout.
"The West Coast energy crisis was a wake-up call on energy modernization, the blackout is a blaring siren," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "President Bush should call on Republicans to work with House Democrats to modernize our transition system."
But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the Republican bill does more to move electricity around to where it can best be used, and blamed partisan politics for the failure to get a bill on the president's desk.
"Our system of getting electricity from one city to another is interconnected -- piecemeal regulations won't work. This is a regional and national priority, and the current patchwork system is failing," DeLay said in a statement. "The [Republican] energy bill will make it easier to transport electricity from overserved to underserved communities."
Many have said energy reforms are dead for the year because House and Senate negotiators won't be able to make compromises on the vastly different measures.
But at least one Republican lawmaker has said that he is willing to make the tough choices if it means getting an updated energy grid in place. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he will work with negotiators on production, distribution and domestic energy alternatives.
"This outage clearly demonstrates how close the nation is to its energy production and distribution limit," Domenici said in a statement. "Ensuring the proper level of power to the country demands that we make trade offs, including production and greater use of such sources as nuclear energy and practical renewable sources."
Mustering the political will will have to be a priority, say observers. New York Gov. George Pataki said there's no getting around the need for improvements.
"There is something seriously wrong when the entire Northeast, when the Midwest, when Ontario can in a matter of minutes all lose power. This was not supposed to happen," Pataki said.