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Presidential Candidate Dennis Kucinich on the Blackout of 2003, Deregulation and Howard Dean’s Campaign

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Experts now believe the nation’s largest blackout ever may have been caused at a power plant run by the Ohio-based First Energy, a utility long criticized by Congressman Kucinich. He joins us on the presidential campaign trail. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript Power has been restored to tens of million in the Northeast after the nation suffered its worst blackout in history on Thursday and Friday. New York City, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto and Ottawa were among the cities to lose power Many energy experts now believe the blackout began in Ohio where a series of line failures and plant shutdowns spread rapidly across the region..

Much of the blame has been placed on the nation’s antiquated energy grid. Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said the country is running on a “third world grid.”

A proposal to strengthen the nation’s power transmission center has been stalled by Senate Republicans for months. On Thursday President Bush said the blackout should serve as a “wake up call.” But the Washington Post reports that President Bush plans to side with opponents of the plan and delay an upgrade of the system by three years.

Among the groups investigating what happened is the North American Electric Reliability Council, which was formed after the 1965 blackout to monitor energy utilities.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Council had been warning Congress for four years that deregulation of the energy industry has made its job harder to monitor and enforce rules. But Congress has so far refused to give the energy Council enforcement powers.

Investigators examining the cause of Thursday’s blackout are centering specifically on the company FirstEnergy Cop. based in Akron Ohio though Representatives from First Energy say it is too early to determine if its plant caused the problem.

The energy firm has had a history of past problems since 1997 when it was formed from the merger of Ohio Edison, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. and Toledo Edison. In 2001, it acquired General Public Utilities, which owned Pennsylvania Electric Co., Metropolitan Edison near Redding, Pa., and New Jersey Central Power and Light.


AMY GOODMAN: Here on Democracy Now, the War and Peace Report, I’m Amy Goodman and a very special welcome back to the listeners of WBAI, knocked off the air during the largest blackout in U.S. history. And a very special thank you to the staff of Democracy Now! who managed to make their way in on Friday morning by bike, by car, by foot. I’m not sure if someone took a boat in to broadcast Democracy Now! around the country despite the fact that we had to do it by candlelight and gas generator. Well, power has been restored to tens of millions of people in the northeast after the nation suffered the worst blackout in northeast history. New York City, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto, Ottawa, among the cities to experience powerlessness. Many energy experts now believe the blackout began in Ohio, where a series of line failures and plant shutdowns spread rapidly across the country. Investigators examining the cause of Thursday’s blackout are centering specifically on the company, First Energy, based in Akron, Ohio. The representatives from First Energy say it’s too early to determine if its own plant was the problem. The energy firm has had a history of past problems when it formed from a merger of Ohio Edison, Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company and Toledo Edison. In 2001, it acquired General Public Utilities, which owned Pennsylvania Electric, Metropolitan Edison near Redding, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey Central Power and Light. We’re going to start off today’s program where we look at the problems and the recommendations for solutions with Cleveland Congress member, Dennis Kucinich, also democratic presidential candidate, who has taken on First Energy for years. Welcome to Democracy Now! Congress member Kucinich.

DENNIS KUCINICH: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the history of First Energy.

DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, my familiarity comes with one of its predecessor companies, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, which in the 1970’s, according to records on file at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and in hearings before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, actually conducted a campaign, a tireless campaign, to knock Cleveland’s own municipally owned electric system out of business. And they did it through many devious ways of stopping MUNI Light from being able to make repairs on its generator by interfering with the city council. By then, the MUNI Light couldn’t buy power from other companies outside the state when they needed to do it. Leaving C.E.I. as being the only customer that MUNI could turn to where they then, in some cases, tripled the cost of power in order to run up the municipal system’s debt. And the resistance of this campaign was when MUNI Light needed a transfer of power, C.E.I.'s engineers operated in such a way as to deliberately cause on outage on the MUNI system. I mean, this is a company that has operated a nuclear reactor knowing that it was defective. The reactor has a hole in the head, this is the one at port Clinton, Ohio. They have ignored safety precepts. They've basically had the regulators wink at them. And it’s just kind of symptomatic to see them being involved in a massive blackout affecting 50 million people.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, they’re saying, of course, it’s too early to tell that this is where it took place. There was a lot of emphasis on lights out throughout the northeast, particularly New York. Cleveland suffered in many cases the worst situation because it was not only about electricity it was about water as well because of the pumping system, the electric pumping system that you have.

DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, Cleveland did suffer greatly once this outage occurred because the water pumps are run electrically. And every power expert who has looked at this massive blackout has determined that it occurred because of instabilities in the electric power in the First Energy service district. And First Energy has consistently failed to invest in upgrade of equipment. Their emphasis has been on holding onto their cash so that they maintain the fiscal stability of their company while Wall Street is looking at it. I can understand that on the one hand. On the other hand they have laid off personnel that have been involved in maintenance. They have not adequately repaired their transmission lines for the point of where they could hold up under any kind of changes in power. And so, we have a condition right now where a company that has already been under close scrutiny for mismanagement of a nuclear power plant located on Lake Erie, deficiencies in a power plant that came close to creating a breach in the reactor vessel, and which came close to contaminating our lake, Great Water Supply, fresh water for the whole Great Lakes region. This company is now, you know, once again, under scrutiny, and frankly, it ought to be. And in a larger sense, Amy, this is symptomatic of what happens with deregulation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Congress member Dennis Kucinich, who is now in Iowa, campaigning early for the Iowa primary, who really, you really made your name as both the mayor of Cleveland and recently as taking on utilities, this is one of your priority issues.

DENNIS KUCINICH: Right. Well, you know, the right of utility franchise is vested in the public. People don’t always know that. They don’t know that the utilities get their permission to operate by having a system set up at a state level, which gives them a permit to operate, franchise, in exchange for service and for a fair rate. Well, what’s happened is, as utility monopolies have grown, they have been overcharging people for power and they haven’t always had the best service. And we have a condition now where utility monopolies are gaining great power, no pun intended, politically, and are able to set the rules so they can keep growing, and, in effect, no public ability to be able to set the rules. I mean, the growth of Enron was a prime example, where Enron received help from the administration and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, being able to control wholesale markets and drive up the cost of electricity. I mean, what people pay for electricity is no small matter. And the government has a lot to do with whether the price is gonna be fair or not. And, you know, with this whole deregulation that happened ten years ago, we were told that this is going to decrease U.S. energy dependence through increased domestic production and conservation, while that hasn’t-you know, we haven’t seen the conservation. We were told that if they restructured the electric utility industry, it’s going to spur competition. Exactly the opposite happened. And we were told that as they work to ease licensing for nuclear power plants that this is going to work to the American public’s benefit. Well, actually, the easing of licensing for nuclear power plants at this point represents a threat to this country because the nuclear power plants that have been relicensed, and it’s more relicensing than new licensing, have not necessarily been up to safety standard. So you have this whole energy system that needs to be transformed and it needs to be transformed towards renewable energy and sustainable energy and away from nuclear and away from all these nonrenewables, where these energy companies right now are just trying to drain these systems, run them into the ground, not make improvements and as a result, you get the kind of exposure to blackouts which occurred last week.

AMY GOODMAN: As you take on the president of this country in your race for president, one of the things that “Newsday” points out in its coverage of the blackout is that the deregulation of the nation’s energy industry in the 1990’s added many more uncertainties for both traditional utilities and their customers. In the frenzied deregulation atmosphere of the past five years, private investors supported companies building highly efficient gas fired power plants, while traditional investments in the transmission lines and regulated equipment took a back seat. Also says, although Bush’s original energy plan called for $6 billion in conservation-related tax breaks, critics say he’s favored the needs of big business over conservation efforts. For instance, they say Bush officials in 2001 push to roll back energy efficiency standards for air conditioners, mandated by the year 2006, which would have reduced power demand by 14,000 megawatts, the equivalent of 50 medium sized power plants. The administration called the restrictions anticompetitive.

DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, you, know, here’s a great example. When it comes time to conserve, the only thing they’re interested in conserving are the profits of the utility industries. Then they will turn around and create a war in the Middle East for the purposes of serving oil interests. This is an administration which is typical of any administration that just serves corporate interests, and it doesn’t matter about the future of America. It doesn’t matter about the future of our planet. We need right now to take steps in directions of creating a sustainable energy portfolio of, I’d say, at least 20% by the year 2010. We need to move towards not only conservation, but we need to make sure that we incentivise the production of wind, solar, hydrogen and geothermal biomass, all of these types of energies that take us away from nonsustainable sources. One of the things that I’ve learned, there are 23 Indian reservations where if we just harness the wind power that sweeps across the plains we could provide 330,000 megawatts of power that would be half of the U.S. demand. And that would be with wind power.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Congress member Kucinich, in a minute after the break we’re going to go to a debate on the issue of deregulation, but I just wanted to ask you, as you’re on the presidential campaign trail, you’re in Iowa, right now as you for so long have represented the progressive wing of the democratic party, how it feels to be taking on Howard Dean, who is now seen as the major opposition candidate within the democratic party.

DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, you know, if you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk. And with all due respect to Dr. Dean, a doctor who turns his back on universal healthcare with 8,000 physicians out there favoring it, could hardly be considered progressive. And someone who has taken a position not to reform NAFTA and/or GATT through canceling it and reinstituting bilateral trade based on workers rights, human rights and the environment, you know, there’s a question about being progressive. And there’s a question about being progressive when you come into a campaign and you support public financing and you turn around and start to equivocate on it because you’re worried about keeping pace with the president’s fundraising, and that means you can only get your money from heavy corporate contributors. You know, I think as this campaign develops, it will be very clear that I’m offering a real progressive alternative for the American people. And again, if you’re going to talk the talk, walk the walk. We’ll see where our respective campaigns continue to walk and run as we move through these next few months of the campaign. And I’m quite confident that as that happens, I’m going to be gaining increased support, and this campaign will be there to provide a real alternative to the American people, not a series of head fakes in the direction of progressivism for the crowds, and then after that after the campaign events are over you go back to this kind of approach to centrism which only blurs the differences between the parties, causes people to become disillusioned, and results in people not turning out on election day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Congress member, Dennis Kucinich, thank you for being with us. Congress member Kucinich is from Cleveland, which experienced some of, really, the worst affects of the blackout over the last days. Thanks for being with us. You are listening to Democracy Now! When we come back a roundtable discussion about deregulation. We’ll be speaking with the head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who is all for deregulation. Greg Palast, who has written a piece that has been one of the most read pieces on the Internet over the last few days. People who had the battery power in their computers to read it during the blackout. We’ll also be joined by a man who’s worked in utilities for more than three decades, who left because of the direction they were going and we’ll also be speaking with a leading alternative energy expert. You’re listening to Democracy Now! In this aftermath of the biggest blackout in U.S. history. Stay with us.

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