Meetings of federal regulatory commissions don't generally fire
up much public interest. But today's meeting of the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC) could prove an exception.
One reason is that the commission is taking on one of the
summer's hottest issues - the high cost of electric power in the
West. Another is that newly empowered Democrats in the Senate want
to make sure how Republicans respond (or fail to respond) to this
issue is etched in public thought. (Although FERC is an independent
body, Bush recently appointed two new members.)
The commission may not go as far as Democrats want - a price cap
on what wholesalers can charge for power. But even a move in that
direction could signal more government involvement in controlling
energy prices across the country.
Leaks of possible outcomes of the meeting have been circulating
for days, but Senate staff who follow the issue insist that the
outcome will not be known for sure until the five commissioners get
What is sure is that they will be grilled about whatever they
decide. Tomorrow, all five commissioners face questions from the
full Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on whether they
have done enough to ensure that the prices that generators charge
utility companies are "just and reasonable."
For new Democratic chairmen with gavels (and subpoena power),
it's a chance to signal that there's a big difference in how the
two political parties deal with an issue at the top of public
concerns. The White House has opposed price caps as a solution to
California's energy crisis.
After taking over chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural
Resources Committee, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico gave the
FERC two weeks to deal with the California crisis "responsibly."
After that, he said, the Senate would be forced to legislate the
"It is our job to make sure federal agencies are doing their job
to fairly and appropriately protect the interests of the American
people," says Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, whose
Governmental Affairs Committee takes up the same issue on
At the heart of such investigations is whether the sharp rise in
energy prices since June 2000 is the result of genuine shortages of
supply or the result of a deliberate withholding of supply by
energy companies to drive up prices - a tough charge to prove.
"There have been 28 investigations of the oil and gas industry in
the last 22 years for price gouging, and not one of them found
anything of the kind," says Jerry Taylor, director of natural
resources studies for the Cato Institute, a Washington-based
libertarian think tank. …