A bipartisan group of U.S. House of Representatives members last week introduced a bill that would absolve companies that generate or transmit power under a federal emergency directive from violation of environmental rules or civil and criminal liability suits. The bill also directs the Department of Energy to minimize adverse environmental impacts in its emergency order.

H.R. 4273, titled the “Resolving Environmental and Grid Reliability Conflicts Act,” was introduced by House Energy & Commerce Committee Members Pete Olson (R-Texas), Lee Terry (R-Neb.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Gene Green (D-Texas), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), and Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas). The bill 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 DOE to order electric generating facilities to continue operating in order to avoid potential emergencies, including reliability-related emergencies. But compliance with such an emergency order could trigger a violation of environmental laws and regulations, potentially exposing the generator to penalties and lawsuits.

The lawmakers pointed to Mirant Corp. (now GenOn), which faced this dilemma in 2005 when the DOE ordered its Potomac River Generating Station to operate to protect the electric supply to Washington, D.C. Mirant complied with the order but was later fined for a three-hour National Ambient Air Quality Standards 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,” they said in a joint statement.

The bill’s sponsors project that in the coming months and years, the DOE could 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.

“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.

 

Sources: POWERnews, House Energy & Commerce Committee