Commentary

Political Realities of Legislation for Extreme Events

by Andrea Boland

The single extreme solar storm (GMD/geomagnetic disturbance) or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack (manmade weapon) – together often known as natural and manmade EMP, or simply EMP – could cause a blackout lasting months or years. Even for government officials who have the authority to do something about it, legislation may be required to make new demands on a resistant, powerful industry.

For unfamiliar and intellectually intimidating topics, it may be necessary to educate legislators.   The effort it takes to pass legislation to solve even relatively simple problems, however, may be enough to discourage legislators from voluntarily taking on this kind of new, unfamiliar challenge. Therefore, when facing the specter of a massive infrastructure problem and a powerful industry lobby, many default to a wait-and-see position.  

Educating Legislators Key sources of information for legislators are typically the legislation sponsor and supporters, the industry and its lobbyists, content experts, and outside interests, including the general public and the legislators’ own supporters. The primary forum for educating legislators comes from a public hearing presented before the legislative committee that has jurisdiction over that policy area. Thus, to seek protections of the Maine electricity transmission system (the grid) from long-term blackouts due to GMD and EMP requires the public hearing to take place before the Energy, Utilities, and Technology (EUT) Committee. 

As a state representative, it took a significant amount of time to learn about the threats of GMD and EMP, and to develop a substantial network of national experts on policy, science and technology, manufacturing, space weather, weapons, intelligence, and national defense. Dr. Peter Vincent Pry and the office of (now former) Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, both long-time national leaders on EMP, were significant in introducing politicians to experts who had been working on these issues at the federal level. Many of them came to Maine to testify at the hearing. These experts informed the EUT about threats to the electric grid that they had never heard about before from the power companies. They challenged the legislators to do the following:

  • Acknowledge that the State has a problem (as do all the states);

  • Recognize that the State has regulatory authority to fix the problem;

  • Identify available solutions and their costs (GMD protections exist that are low cost);

  • Provide effective leadership to protect Maine’s electrical grid from long-term blackout; and

  • Serve as a model for other states.

The experts were articulate, convincing, and impressive when describing a compelling but scary message, so committee members were able to understand the issue.

On the other hand, the electric power industry “representatives” (lobbyists) who had spent careers lobbying for the industry before the EUT Committee (and other legislators) were not content experts, but rather public relations experts highly paid to deliver a message. They spoke positively about the electric companies’ management of the threat, with statements including the following: “We are talking about a low-probability event; we have competing priorities; we’ve been protecting the grid for years; we are following all the NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corporation) reliability standards.” Despite sounding impressive when delivering a reassuring message, they failed to answer key questions and to win over the committee. The threat they posed to passage of the bill was that they were familiar faces to the committee members – and their ingratiating smiles can tip the balance for lazy, confused, or just undecided legislators.

The Process Behind a Maine Bill Facing news it could not ignore, the EUT lacked the confidence to act on or confront the industry’s resistance, and amended the bill (LD 131, introduced by Andrea Boland) to a study, with the provision that the EUT could use its findings to draft permanent protective legislation the following year. The Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was to conduct the study, and assured the EUT they could deliver it on schedule in January 2014. The industry agreed to the plan. LD 131 passed unanimously in committee as emergency legislation and in the House of Representatives, and passed by a vote of 32-3 in the Senate, to become law on 11 June 2013.

It was a deftly designed study and internationally acclaimed as model legislation. It also was the first ever EMP/GMD legislation passed in the nation. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has an Office of Energy Infrastructure Security, which has a mission to assist states; its director, Joe McClelland, offered help with the study.   

Two reports finally emerged – one influenced heavily by the electric power companies, and one supported by the independent experts – but not until 2015, and new elections had resulted in a newly configured legislature. Senator David Miramant introduced a new bill (LD 1363) to require installation of known, available protections supported in the studies. This time, the EUT split its vote, and the bill failed in the legislature – by one vote in the Maine Senate, along party lines. Low-cost solutions existed, and the prior legislature’s nearly unanimous vote had supported emergency action to protect the grid, but the industry had succeeded in defeating it.  

The difference in the results of the two legislative efforts may be explained by different factors at work. In 2013, the legislation, sponsor, and experts surprised the industry, which was unable to recover from the unexpected exposure of the threat and the apparent disinterest and/or incompetence of the power companies regarding GMD and EMP. In January 2014, the EUT chair, without a vote of the committee, had granted the PUC an extension to January 2015 to finish the study – under the direction of the biggest electric utility in Maine, Central Maine Power (CMP). By 2015, when LD 1363 was introduced, the industry had regained its political control, as the 2014 election had populated the EUT and one-third of the full legislature with new faces. Various systemic political realities also may have contributed to the industry defeat of protections:

  • Uneasiness about supporting a big, new, unfamiliar issue – It may not seem advantageous to some legislators to invest the time and effort to support a bill that might not pass, or to take a politically risky position opposing a political power industry. Legislative leaders remained quiet, not signaling support, maybe for similar reasons.

  • Legislators’ fears and lobbyist arguments, valid or not, to oppose the bill – lobbyists make it easy for reluctant legislators to adopt their positions when they do not conduct their own research.

  • Hesitation to cause trouble with big campaign donors – Legislative leaders are expected to raise money to get themselves and their members elected, and to fulfill an agenda.

  • Committee chairs in Maine are appointed by legislative leadership (Speaker of the House and President of the Senate) – These leaders typically support the agenda of those who appointed them and often of the special interests under the committee’s jurisdictions, and they are in a position to influence outcomes. The chairs never took up the PUC study reports for review, causing committee members to not be informed on their contents. Thus, they influenced the committee vote, which in turn, influenced the full legislature’s vote.

  • Appointment of committee members by leadership – Only three of the 2013 members of the EUT Committee were reappointed to the 2015 committee; 10 were new, including the chairs. Therefore, the committee did not benefit from a lot of experience with the subject.

  • Influence of committee chairs – In 2013, the chairs did not limit the time visiting experts had to testify. In 2015, chairs limited them to three minutes each (meanwhile, the lobbyists were working every day in committee and in the halls of the State House). With so little input from the independent, national experts, and deliberately confused by lobbyists protecting electric companies from higher standards, new members were frustrated, unable to master critical new information, and split the committee vote. They thereby weakened the message to the rest of the legislature.

  • The Senate chair of the EUT, Senator David Woodsome, who had been supporting the bill all along, changed his vote in the end, probably, as a new legislator, succumbing to party pressure, and spoke against it on the floor of the Senate. This was enough to defeat the bill by one vote, even though Senator Miramant spoke strongly for it. The House of Representatives had passed it decisively, where the three veteran EUT committee members spoke in favor of it.  

Future Legislative Concerns Many legislators who are motivated to follow and be politically safe, rather than lead on tough issues, often go along with party leadership or powerful interests. The legislative hierarchy structure, campaign funding laws, and committee system can work symbiotically to marshal votes for a separate agenda. Legislators who take on serious problems may find themselves opposing powerful interests and getting little or no help from their leadership because high political costs could reflect on them personally. Their constituents and the public in general may be strongly supportive, but not enough of them raise their voices.

Not unlike other powerful industries, the electric power industry uses media and lobbyists to telegraph an image of integrity and professional authority, but then uses inaccurate data in their studies to try to prove invalid arguments that work for them. To inexperienced, often stressed legislators, it may be persuasive. NERC, the electric power industry’s association and lobbying arm, has sole authority to write its own “reliability standards” that determine their level of public responsibility. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is charged with regulating NERC, but often turns to NERC for answers. In the same way, the Maine PUC turned to Central Maine Power Company for the LD131 study. CMP then turned to NERC, which provided data from another country, rather than using the Maine data it had, to support the outcome it wanted: the argument against GMD/EMP protections.

First-Hand Experience in the Maine Legislature Big money and special interests have outside influence on the legislative process. It can often compromise leaders, defeat good legislation, endanger the public, and promote regulatory capture. It is difficult to display political courage when lobbyists of powerful interests smile and create confusion about the facts. For these reasons, testimony from subject matter experts needs to be treated with great respect. In this case, the testimony of first responders was very important. The public is critically important, too. Without public support, the nation cannot expect to maintain a self-governance.

The United States is the most vulnerable country in the world to natural and manmade solar storms and EMP because of its huge, interconnected grid and its dependence on electric power and electronics. State Senator and Navy veteran Robert “Bob” Hall of Texas refers to obstruction of protections of the grid as “treason” because it is also a national defense threat. Imagine what the fifth week of a blackout would be like following an EMP or solar storm: no heating, cooling, communications, water and waste systems, banking, hospitals, transportation, food delivery, etc.

Governing bodies must take charge of protecting the nation. If Congress is too conflicted to act, the states must. Many states are initiating action, but it is a struggle. In all states, the electric companies have blanket liability protection against the costs of catastrophe from these threats, so they have no incentive to act on their own to raise standards. The public must engage more and insist on more courage and dedication by their elected representatives, and more accountability from the electric power companies. They must be made to quickly repair the electric grid to a level of realistic protection against such horrific threats, and be held legally responsible to share in the consequences and real costs of catastrophes that result from their inaction.   

Right now, the nation is in another pre-Katrina or pre-9-11 moment. A small army of people is working very hard to save the electric grid, and protect the nation, but it will take many more recruits, and bigger armies, moving governments, media, and industry in more states and in Washington, D.C., to win the war and save the country from the societal collapse that a severe GMD or EMP would threaten.    

 

State Representative Andrea Boland recently completed 8 years (or 4 terms) in the Maine legislature. She is considered a leader in safety issues of electromagnetic radiation, especially from cellphones and smart meters. She became involved in electric grid protection against electromagnetic pulse and geomagnetic solar storms (GMD) at the suggestion of her regular scientific advisor. Her work is supported by several national experts. She has a B.A. degree from Elmira College and an MBA from Northeastern University, and studied at the Sorbonne and Institute of Political Studies in Paris. She was awarded the 2011 Health Freedom Hero Award by the National Health Federation for her work on health freedom and safety. Her legislative work has led to confronting major corporate interests on matters of transparency and regulatory capture, and public protections.