by Joe Shea
America Reporter Correspondent
Fort Stockton, Texas
August 15, 2003
WHO 'RESET' THE POWER GRID?
FORT STOCKTON, Tex. -- Shortly after 1 p.m. Mountain Time in El Paso yesterday morning I walked up to the doors of the ExxonMobil station at Exit O in Anthony, Tex., and found a sign on the door: "Electric Power Outage!" it read, but inside the air conditioning was on, machines and lights were working and employees milled around aimlessly.
"What's with the electricity?" I asked the young Latina that opened the door at my knock.
"It's gonna go out in a few minutes," she said. It did, too - thousands of miles away, just after 4 p.m. Eastern Time, blacking out New York City, Albany, Ottawa, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo and countless small cities and towns in between. It was the largest power outage in the history of the world.
I had just bought gas at the pump and paid at the island by credit card, and had come to the station's doors only to ask another question:
When had the station dropped the octane of its regular gas from 87 to 86?
The bright new yellow stickers on the pump that reveal the octane (the burning efficiency of gasoline) were still shiny, so I suspected it had occurred early Thursday morning. But as was the case last year in Los Angeles when the midgrade octane changed from 92 to 91 overnight, station employees did not know when or why it had occurred.
At a ChevronTexaco station in Van Horn, Texas, the stickers were not quite as new, and someone had tried to scare them off. In Fort Stockton, an isolated community of 7,800 in the West Texas desert about 75 miles east of Van Horn, the regular was still 87 octane at the Shell station here.
Meanwhile, as New York power officials blamed a Canadian plant, according to the Canadian cabinet minister in charge of emergency preparedness, John McCallum, the problem originated in at a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. McCallum refused to explain his comments.
Ironically, Pennsylvania is the home of former Gov. Tom Ridge, the Dept. of Homeland Security head whose nationally-broadcast public service ads frequently warn Americans to "be ready" for terrorism and have a flashlight at hand. It was good advice yesterday.
As tens of millions wandered in the dark due to a mysterious "technical difficulty" - probably a computer virus that "reset" the power grid - a massive energy crisis and its trillion-dollar price tab is waiting for Americans.
A fire blamed on the power outage disrupted a BP oil refinery in Connecticut that distills 165,000 gallons of gasoline, and two others also went offline. The pipeline that carries premium and midgrade gas from Los Angeles to Phoenix sprang a leak June 30 and has been shut down since; there is no date set for it to reopen. Tropical Storm Erica is approaching the Gulf Coast of Texas, where many oil refineries are located. It is logical to expect the prices at the pump to continue to rise. But the worst is yet to come.
As the New York Times said this morning, "The problem of preventing such power failures has been that, for the most part, no one has an incentive to invest billions of dollars in new wires, new towers and new transformers. The old utilities have sold off their power lines but still hold a highly regulated monopoly on the network of lines, and they would only invest in new transmission if state regulators would guarantee them rate increases to pay for it."
In those words are the seeds of a trillion-dollar ripoff of American taxpayers. Having bilked California out of $21 billion in 2001, energy companies are turning their attention to the national treasury. They have contrtibuted millions of dollars to thousands of elected officials across the country who are now in no position to argue with them. When Con Ed or Florida Power & Light says "I told you so," they'll say, "How much?"
Rather than seize back the monopoly power they gave the utilities that now own their elected officials, the states and the federal government will bankrupt the American people to pay for an overhaul of the power industry that has probably been catalyzed by a lone computer virus that reset just a single machine, triggering a network response that killed the whole system at just one plant near Erie, Pa.
Industry officials say that's impossible.
The Internet worm known as the LoveSan virus is the first that has shown the ability to reset computers that are connected to the Internet without the user having to open an email message or attachment.
But LoveSan was not aimed at hard drives; we believe it was a test of a new function - the ability to reset mission-critical computers like those that regulate our electricity grids. If so, it worked.
Was it created by the power industry tojustify a new round of rate increases - and at the same time, new gasoline shortages that will generate public demand for the cheap, dirty gas the industry prefers to sell?
That we cannot know, at least anytime soon. But what we can observe, across the Northeast and in Canada today, is long lines, higher prices and gas rationing in some Northeastern states at a time when oil is in abundant supply.
Joe Shea is heading east today along the Texas Gulf Coast as he returns to his new home in Florida.