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Pulling the plug?

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

Knowledge of California's blackouts and mortgage-like electric bills may up the voltage when the West Virginia Legislature takes on electric deregulation again next month.

"The deregulation issue is of both environmental and economic concern and will dominate the session this year," predicted James Kotcon, a biologist at West Virginia University who is tracking deregulation nationally.

Kotcon isn't alone in his view.

Bill Wooton, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said what had seemed nearly a done deal in 2000 is now anybody's ball game, with the complete derailing of deregulation a slim possibility.

Deregulation would ultimately allow electric producers to sell power in any state market. Producers would set prices, while consumers would choose among companies.

In some states, such as California, deregulation has been linked to price spikes and power outages.

The 2001 deregulation ball has already started rolling, although full Legislative activity does not begin until mid-February.

The Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary is conducting a public hearing on the issue from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. today at the House Government Organization Room. An informational meeting with a national consultant is scheduled Monday for legislators.

As factions take position, views of how the session may play out vary widely:

Wooton

Wooton suspects the legal technicality involving deregulation's effect on taxes that has delayed implementation could become a tool for legislators and lobbyists who oppose the concept.

"Legislators who already have misgivings could profess to be concerned (about the tax issue)," he said of one possibility.

He sees four basic scenarios: Power company lobbyists will hold sway and deregulation will be implemented; California-provoked misgivings will rule and the Commission plan will be rejected, misgivings will cause foot dragging and nothing will happen this year, or the Legislature will revisit its 1998 ruling and reverse it.

He thinks the latter possibility is unlikely.

Additionally, the presence of Bob Wise as governor is a wild card, he said.

Charlotte Lane, chair of the Public Service Commission

While Lane was not available to comment for this article, she has been an outspoken proponent for deregulation, saying it would boost the state's economy, make it easier to export power to other states and increase coal jobs.

In fall 2000, she projected customer choice could come as early as April.

Kotcon

Fighting deregulation is at the top of the state Environmental Council lobbying agenda, according to Kotcon. The council is a coalition of state environmental groups.

In addition to concern that electric producers will use the cheapest, most-polluting fuels to compete in a deregulated market, Kotcon is concerned West Virginians will lose what are now among the lowest electricity bills in the nation.

"Rates have gone up in virtually every state that's been deregulated," Kotcon said. "We'll be moving from regulated monopolies to unregulated monopolies and the consumers will get gouged."

Del. Mary Poling, D-40th District

A freshman House of Representatives member representing all of Barbour County and part of Upshur, Poling has already attended two interim briefings to get up to speed.

"The meetings that I've attended, I'm hearing a call for either stopping the process or slowing it down," said Poling, a high school teacher.

"I don't know enough about it to know whether I'm for or against it, but I have a feeling that a lot of people that have been there longer don't either."

Jay Mason, Allegheny Power spokesman

One of several electric companies already operating in the state, Mason said Allegheny lobbyists will be in place this session.

"We'll be working, basically, with the finance subcommittees," Mason said.

Allegheny, which has 700,000 customers in West Virginia, is headquartered in the deregulated state of Maryland.

So far, there has been little new competition or business change in that state, he said. He believes deregulation would be smooth in West Virginia because this state already exports power, unlike California, which cannot supply even itself.

The company, like Dominion, is also interested in building peaking plants in a deregulated West Virginia. These plants run during times of power shortages, selling to the national power grid instead of consumers.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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