On August 14, 2003, a poorly maintained electricity system--like a levee holding back water--failed and drained all the power from 50 million Canadians and Americans. During the blackout, people died, security systems failed, and the economy was devastated. Canada’s Prime Minister and the American President authorized a joint Task Force to investigate. The Task Force recommended an independent study to determine if blackouts are caused by the pursuit of unregulated electricity profits--by deregulation. Unfortunately, both governments now appear to be walking away from their duty to protect the public by failing to commission an adequate and independent investigation.
Instead of using arms-length, unbiased organizations to select participants for a broadly mandated and adequately funded independent study, the Canadian and U.S. governments substituted two one-day workshops (in Toronto and Washington D.C. last September) to discuss papers written by 10 invited authors. As one of those invitees, I know that these workshops and papers could not substitute for the recommended investigation.
Unregulated electricity prices are an unprecedented change from more than three-quarters of a century of regulated prices in Canada and the U.S. Regulated prices are based on investment and performance, and focus participants on providing low-cost, reliable electricity--an essential upon which our lives and livelihoods depend. Over the last decade, however, governments, such as those of Ontario and California, have begun to allow electricity corporations to charge unregulated prices. This radical change has brought us high prices and blackouts. A mountain of evidence, including that from ongoing California legal proceedings, demonstrates that dozens of corporations have put profits ahead of public welfare.
We need our governments to do their job so that we don’t ship our manufacturing jobs overseas, decimate small farms and businesses, cut back on tourism, reduce our standard of living, allow our security systems to suffer unplanned shutdowns, and don’t have to live without reliable electricity.
When a National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) flight failed and lives were lost, the U.S. government launched an independent investigation. When people suspected that a couple of hundred million dollars of public money might had been misspent, the Canadian government launched an independent investigation. What is stopping both governments from commissioning an adequate and independent investigation into incidents involving greater loss of life and billions of dollars in unnecessary costs? What is preventing our federal governments from acting on a recommendation by their own joint Task Force? Are politics and money getting in the way?
The U.S. government has an ideological belief that electricity deregulation works and that its appointed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission drives this policy. Even though California’s representatives pleaded for help, the U.S. government sat idly by as Enron and others destroyed the state’s electricity system and trashed its economy. People struggled to maintain life support systems as electricity supply was withheld by corporate bandits.
In Canada, our federal government doesn’t want to get caught between provinces that believe in electricity with unregulated profit, such as Ontario and Alberta, and other provinces that don’t. The government apparently believes it’s better to let Canadians suffer future blackouts than investigate what went wrong.
In addition to political gain and loss getting in the way, Canadian and U.S. pro-deregulation politicians receive millions of dollars in campaign contributions and post government jobs from big energy and finance corporations. These corporations make billions of dollars in deregulated electricity markets. Investigating deregulation, even where lives and the economy are at stake, could cost politicians dearly.
Getting the Canadian government to authorize an independent investigation about how it treated a Canadian citizen who was tortured in Syria and the U.S. government to authorize an independent investigation of 9/11 took time and pressure. It looks like only time and pressure can provide an independent investigation of why Hurricane Katrina caused levees to fail in New Orleans.
I hope that sufficient time and mounting pressure will move our governments to launch an adequate and independent investigation of deregulation so that we can understand why poorly maintained electricity infrastructure failed and devastated Ontario, the American Northeast, and California.
It’s time for our governments to demonstrate to all of us that they place the public good over personal and political gain.
(John Wilson, P.Eng., is an energy consultant, former Hydro One board member, and Ontario Electricity Coalition member.)