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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Congress Begins Investigation Of The Northeast Blackout.

Aired September 3, 2003 - 20:38   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Congress today got down to the business of finding out what caused the biggest blackout in North American history. The first of two days of hearings in the House Energy and Commerce Committee kicked off with testimony from Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. He promised lawmakers there would be a focused investigation into the blackout. And Secretary Abraham joins me tonight from Washington. Always good to see you, welcome.
SECRETARY SPENCER ABRAHAM, ENERGY DEPARTMENT: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: First of all, sir. What caused the blackout?

ABRAHAM: Well, we're in the process of determining exactly what set of events triggered the blackout and also why it cascaded. Why it wasn't contained. There are so many factors, so much data involved, it going to take a a little bit of time to get to the answer of that question. But we intend to do it in as timely fashion as we can.

ZAHN: What would you say to Americans tonight who find that hard to believe?

ABRAHAM: Well, just to put it in perspective, the area in just the United States portion of the blackout involves 34,000 miles of transmission lines, hundreds of power generation sources and sub- stations, all of which were engaged in activity during approximately a nine second period of time when all of this blackout activity began. In other words, thousands of events happened in a nine second period of time.

We've got to put them in order. That's not easy because it was happening throughout that huge geographic area. So it's going to take some time as any serious investigation does. But we want to give the people who were affected by this and those who worry it might happen again the confidence we've done a thorough investigation. That's what we intend to do.

ZAHN: But while you try to put these facts into order, how is it then, that you can rule out the possibility of terrorism if you're not sure what triggered it?

ABRAHAM: Paula, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and other agencies, both in America and also in Canada, to this point, have uncovered no evidence what so ever that there was any intentional action that was involved in this.

But we do have a working group, one of three, that are part of our task force, which is headed by Tom Ridge and his Canadian counterpart, John Manley, who are looking at all the security issues, just to double-check to make sure there was no terrorist or intentional malicious activity, but also to learn what we can from this, to make sure we take proper safeguards for the future.

ZAHN: And you say you want to make it clear to not only American citizens but Canadian citizens that you get to the bottom of all this. Let's talk about the cost issue you're confronting.

There's a lot of debate about what needs to be done to improve the power grid in America, the cost attached to that is huge. What is it, some hundred billion dollars over a ten to 20-year period. Where's the money come from?

ABRAHAM: Well, people have a lot of different estimates. But we know that our transmission grid isn't big enough or modern enough to handle the demands that are being put on it and the growing demand we foresee over the next 10 to 20 years.

Right now, in the typical rate payers energy bill, 80 percent of what they pay for is the actual production of energy, of electricity. Only 10 percent is transmission costs. What we've discovered is there's so much congestion in the transmission grid, that people's energy bills, generating costs are artificially high. And we believe that by improving the transmission grid we will be offsetting those increased costs for transmission with lower costs for energy production. But it's not going to cost less.

And so the question is, do we want to be able to grow the economy, grow the demand for energy and deliver it in a safe, efficient and reliable fashion or not? I think Americans want their energy delivered safely and reliably.

ZAHN: Finally, one last question. What is it like to run an agency that you thought should be abolished when you were a Senator from Michigan?

ABRAHAM: Well, as I told people, one grows in office. As we move ahead into the 21st century, the obvious benefits of the Department of Energy are clear to me. I wish they had been clearer earlier on when I had different opinions. But it's become clear to me how vital this agency is. I think very highly of the men and women who are part of this department. I think it's doing a great job.

ZAHN: But you do concede it was a late conversion?

ABRAHAM: Well, I admitted that in my Senate confirmation hearings. But happily the Congress in the year 2000 passed legislation that reorganized the department and that step was the right step to put it on the right track.

ZAHN: Secretary Abraham. Good of you to join us tonight. Thanks so much for you time.

ABRAHAM: Thank you.

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