UPDATE 1-US Congress urged to give Govt power line authority
(Updates throughout with further comments from FERC chairman, Senate Majority Leader)
By Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON, March 12 (Reuters) - Congress should give the federal government more authority to approve extra powerful transmission lines to move electricity generated by renewable sources, overriding state objections when necessary, a top energy regulator said on Thursday.
Broader federal authority would help meet President Barack Obama's goal of doubling U.S. production of renewable energy like solar and wind power in the next three years, said Jon Wellinghoff, acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee.
This could help cut greenhouse gas emissions spewed by coal-fired power plants that contribute to global warming, he said.
"The timely siting of electric transmission facilities will be essential to meeting our nation's goal of reducing reliance on carbon-emitting sources of electric energy and bringing new sources of renewable energy to market," Wellinghoff said at a Senate Energy Committee hearing on new transmission lines.
"At the end of the day if there is a state who blocks a line that's in the national public interest I think, unfortunately, there needs to be a federal override," he said.
Congress gave FERC authority to site and permit electric transmission lines crossing state borders within important corridors with grid congestion. But a federal court ruled FERC cannot use this authority if a state denies a transmission project in a timely manner.
"Without broader federal siting authority ... it is unlikely that the nation will be able to achieve energy security and economic stability," Wellinghoff said.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, chairman of the energy committee, agreed FERC's current siting authority is insufficient. "It does not apply to most of the country and does not take into account future need," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, has introduced legislation to give the government broader siting authority for new power lines for renewable energy.
Reid, who also testified at Thursday's hearing, later told reporters he wanted to roll that bill along with a new national renewable electricity standard into climate change legislation. The bill he envisions would cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and require power plants, oil refineries and other industrial facilities to buy permits to emit carbon polluting emissions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to take a similar approach, Reid said. "The House has decided to take them all up together. That's probably where we're headed," he said.
Reid said he hoped the combined bill would clear the Senate this summer. He said he would consider tacking the bill on to budget reconciliation legislation the Senate could pass with a simple majority, without needing 60 votes to stop a filibuster.
"Oh I love 51 (votes) compared to 60," Reid said. "We know that's an alternative."
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the energy panel, said she opposed combining the energy and climate change bill and folding it into budget legislation.
"I also strongly disagree with attempts to do an end run around Congress and mandate what would be the biggest change in our energy policy in the nation's history through the budget reconciliation process," she said. (Reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by David Gregorio)
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