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Resolving Environmental and Grid Reliability Conflicts Act of 2012

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. OLSON. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself as much time as I may consume.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H.R. 4273, Resolving Environmental and Grid Reliability Conflicts Act of 2012.

My colleagues and I carefully drafted this bill to resolve a conflict between the Federal Power Act and environmental laws and regulations that, if left unresolved, could create serious problems for the reliability of our Nation's electric grid.

Every year, as the heat of summer settles in across our country and demand surges for electricity, the potential for dangerous power outages grows. Some States, such as California, and my home State of Texas, are being warned by electricity regulators that reserve margins could dip dangerously low.

Texas is expected to have a 2,500 megawatt shortfall in generating capacity--equivalent to five large power plants--as early as 2014. This shortfall could cause rolling blackouts across Texas that have the potential to impact more than 25 million people.

As we've seen happen before in our country, and as we are watching it unfold in India this week, an unexpected loss of power can result in significant harm to human health and the environment.

Prior experience shows that in rare and limited circumstances, emergency actions are needed to ensure the reliable delivery of electricity. In these circumstances, the Department of Energy has a tool of last resort to address the emergency. That tool is an emergency order issued under section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act. DOE can order a power plant to generate electricity when outages occur due to weather events, equipment failures, or when the electricity supply is too low and could cause a blackout. As they should, DOE can force a company to comply with a 202(c) order even if it means a technical violation of environmental law. Unfortunately, under current law, a company or individual can be held liable for this technical violation even when they are acting under a Federal order to avoid a blackout.

In recent years, these conflicting Federal laws have resulted in lawsuits and heavy fines for electricity providers who were complying with DOE orders. A power generator in San Francisco had to pay a significant sum as a settlement after they were ordered by DOE to exceed their emissions limits to avoid a blackout. Unless Congress passes legislation to resolve the potential conflict of laws, the effectiveness of this tool is in jeopardy.

As testimony this year before the House Energy and Commerce Committee confirms, the next time DOE invokes 202(c), the power generator may choose to fight the order in court if it conflicts with an environmental law. Conflicting Federal laws put a power generator in a no-win situation--either sue DOE to comply with environmental laws or be sued by third parties for compliance with DOE orders.

H.R. 4273 eliminates the legal conflict facing power generators and their customers by providing a needed safety valve, which clarifies that compliance with an emergency order under section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act may not be considered a violation of any Federal, State, or local environmental law or regulation.

Emergency orders are not issued lightly and only under extreme power reliability scenarios. In the last 30 years, this authority has only been used six times. But when the need arises, my legislation will ensure that DOE works to minimize any adverse environmental impacts, meaning they must balance environmental interests with reliability needs.

While I believe DOE may need to use its emergency authority more often in the future given the strain EPA's new power sector rules will put on the electric grid, I still expect DOE emergency authority orders to be the exception, not the rule.

In those rare instances when the authority is invoked, we should not punish generators that are simply following orders from the Federal Government. That's why we must amend the Federal Power Act so that generators are not forced to choose between compliance with an emergency order and environmental regulations.

This conflict is why I introduced this bipartisan legislation to allow America's power companies to comply with Federal orders to maintain grid reliability during a power emergency without facing lawsuits or penalties.

I am extremely pleased with the bipartisan support this bill has received. This is proof that we can find common ground when working to address a critical glitch in Federal law and provide reliable energy supply to all Americans.

I want to thank committee Chairman Fred Upton,

Ranking Member Henry Waxman, and Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield and Ranking Member Bobby Rush for their support and assistance in moving this bill forward. I also want to thank my colleagues on the committee, Gene Green and Mike Doyle, for working with me to fix this problem and to keep power running for all Americans in an emergency.

Mr. Speaker, I urge my colleagues to support this commonsense, bipartisan legislation that protects energy consumers, the environment, and those who provide the power.

I reserve the balance of my time.


Mr. OLSON. Mr. Speaker, in closing, H.R. 4273 is a bipartisan, commonsense piece of legislation that ensures that during a power crisis, the lights will come on when it's dark, the heat will come on when it's cold, and the air conditioning will come on when it's hot. And lives will be saved.

I urge my colleagues to vote for H.R. 4273, and I yield back the balance of my time.


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