Really, It Was Not Our Fault

August 19, 2003

When the energy blackout in the northeast first happened there were some people in Canada who said that it all began just across the border in Niagara Falls, New York. But the New Yorkers said, no, really, it began in Canada. Then the Canadians and New Yorkers got together and said, well, maybe it began in Pennsylvania. That settled it until the next day when the New York Times reported that it probably began in Ohio, or maybe in Michigan.

They don’t know where it started; they don’t know what caused it. It could have been lightening, or power plant failure or the overload/reverse load nexus. It could have been failure at the source, (some source), or failure in a line, (some line) somewhere. It could have been a switch that did not get adequately greased, or whatever you do to power line switches. Above all, it was not supposed to happen and the president of the North America Reliability Council said "We have designed a system for this not to happen. How did it happen?" a statement which was not very comforting. If the president of the Reliability Council does not know how to make power grids reliable, and that’s his job, then who can we turn to?

The New York Times said wryly that nobody knows what went wrong first, and since there are multiple ways to stop this from happening, none of which worked, nobody even seems to know what went wrong second. In California, Democratic Governor Gray Davis was cheering, saying that he is not the only one with an energy problem and claiming that his lights did not go out for nearly as long or as darkly as they did in New York, where the governor is a Republican.

Experts do agree on some things. It was not caused by the heat. It was not caused by terrorists, and it all happened in about nine seconds. After that it was dark from Michigan to Connecticut with quite a few people out there wandering around in the streets of New York. Even the president went dark. He didn’t want to say anything publicly for two days for fear he might say the wrong thing. This is a president who in most cases does not fear saying the wrong thing and does know what is wrong. The ground was cut out from under him just a little bit when everybody else agreed, before he had a chance to get a word in, that it was not Al Qaeda. Right then the White House press secretary had to look for a new file. And John Ashcroft seems to have gone silent because there is no moral test for dealing with power switches.

Democrats blamed republicans and republicans blamed democrats. Democrats said republicans were wrong to give tax breaks to exploration companies run by Bush’s cronies. "Maintenance," they said, is supposed to be of power lines, not cronies. But republican majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas explained that the whole black out was due to democratic stalling of a "realistic" energy bill. "Realistic" to a republican usually means a bill without environmental protections. New Mexico’s Governor Richardson, to clear it all up, said that the energy grid was antiquated. Knowing that, everybody in the Congress who was not on vacation got back to work on an energy bill that has been languishing in committees for two years.

Which might be encouraging except how are they going to fix a problem that they don’t know what is? Everybody says it could be this or it could be that, and so now they want to rush through legislation that says it was this or that. Some old fashioned liberals who remember when the lights used to stay on are saying we should give up on this Enron-bred chaos and go back to regulation. At least regulation puts someone in charge. This morning the state of Ohio said, no, no, it was not us, not ever, our generators work just fine. So now we are back to Washington but the Bush administration is busy trying to turn the lights on in Baghdad which is, after all, a little closer to oil and more like home than New York.