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We must find out for ourselves why the lights went out
By Judy Darcy

Its been two months since the lights went out for 50 million people in Canada and the United States, but we still dont know why, and perhaps worst of all, the federal government doesnt seem to be doing anything to find out.

The great blackout of August 14 is turning into the forgotten crisis of 2003. The SARS hearings are in full swing and cattle ranchers are sending beef down south again, but no ones asking tough questions about how we can avoid another blackout. At least not in Canada.

Since early September, a U.S. congressional committee has been conducting an in-depth inquiry into the electricity crisis, with televised hearings and a wide variety of witnesses. In Canada, there is no meaningful review of any sort, let alone public hearings.

The only review the Canadian government is involved in is a bi-national task force chaired by U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and federal Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal. But there are signs this task force will zero in on technical details rather than question the overall policy context of what is wrong in both nations. The answers they come up with risk being American-centered, and may be worse than the problems they are trying to solve.

In his September 3 testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Abraham said the bi-national task force is gathering information on about 10,000 individual events that happened across thousands of square miles in the space of about nine seconds and that any recommendations will likely focus on technical standards for operation and maintenance of the grid, and on the management of the grid, in order to more quickly correct the problems we identify.

At the same time, however, the committee chair, Louisiana Republican W.J. Billy Tauzin, is also working with the U.S. Senate to draft an energy bill that could be ready for President George W. Bush to sign within days. Its no secret the Bush administration and the American energy giants are pushing hard for privatization and deregulation of electricity systems around the globe. They have been waiting to push the bill through since it was delayed in the wake of the California Enron scandal of 2001, even though the bill has been attacked by citizens groups as a disaster for the environment, consumers and taxpayers.

When asked why Canadian authorities were not invited to address the U.S. congressional committee, Tauzin told Canadian journalists it was because Congress is responsible for determining accountability for the blackout on the U.S. side of the border. What about the Canadian side?

Canadians should be concerned that, in the absence of any sort of public review in our country, we will simply be asked to go along with whatever is decided in the U.S. That is why we must insist on our own independent and public Canadian review of what went wrong and why. We deserve the chance to let our governments know that we have had enough privatization and deregulation of our electricity system and we will not stand for any more.

Public power accounts for about 80 per cent of Canadas electricity, and only about 12 per cent in the U.S. It is crucial to keep electricity in public hands. The task forces transcripts of the sequence of events on August 14 reveal that the Midwest Independent System Operator (ISO) asked Allegheny Energy to adjust the electricity it was pumping out. The company refused, saying they could make money selling more power. We must prevent this type of attitude from creeping into Canadian policy.

Blackouts in deregulated markets are on the rise, as proven recently in Auckland, New Zealand (1998), New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arkansas and Louisiana (1999) as well as England and Italy (shortly after this summers North American blackout). The California blackouts, partly credited with ending the political career of Governor Gray Davis, were only stopped after the California Power Authority put retail deregulation on hold.

There are many issues that an all-Canadian task force should study, including the protection of our successful vertically integrated public power systems in provinces like Quebec and Manitoba; an improved east-west Canadian grid; a secure, affordable supply with stable and fair prices; first rate energy conservation and efficiency programs; environmental sustainability; democratic control of our systems; and an end to the continental integration of electricity markets and action to exclude electricity from trade and investment deals such as the WTOs General Agreement on Trades and Services (GATS).

Canadians want to know what happened in the blackout and how we can ensure it wont happen again. We should debate this issue in open, public hearings like our neighbours in the U.S. and come up with our own, made-in-Canada solution before the first winter storms test our vulnerable electricity system once again.

Judy Darcy is national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 535,000 workers across the country, including municipal and utility workers in many provinces.