News & Politics

There Goes the Electrical Grid

We're about to repeat a huge mistake that will let the big oil companies jack up our electric rates.
The trouble with deregulation is that it always takes some disaster like Enron before we realize there was a reason for the regulation to begin with.

We are about to repeat one of the huge mistakes of the 1920s and '30s because we have forgotten why PUHCA (pronounced Pooka) was instituted in the first place. PUHCA is the Public Utility Holding Company Act, passed in 1935, which prevents concentration of ownership of power plants. Both the House and Senate versions of the energy bill contain a repeal of PUHCA.

As Kelpie Wilson points out in an article for Truthout, "For 50 years we have had reliable, cheap electric power that has allowed strong economic growth, and no PUHCA-regulated energy holding company has ever gone broke."

PUHCA was partially repealed in the '90s, and even that much deregulation was part of what led to Enron, Westar and other slight mishaps.

PUHCA puts utilities under strict regulation by both state and federal governments. It restricts ownership of utilities to public or private companies that are in the business of producing power.

The most likely candidates to take over power companies are the big oil companies, now awash in cash. There goes the electrical grid: Why fix it when you can charge more for doing nothing?

Lynn Hargis, an attorney who spent 10 years at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and is now with Public Citizen, says repeal means a repeat of the same dreary mistakes. In the 1920s, three huge companies owned half of the nation's power plants and built them into speculative power-holding companies that used the reliable money from utilities for flights of fancy in the stock market.

When you are paying your electric bill to ExxonMobil, Halliburton or some Chinese firm, you will see why this is a monumentally bad idea. (Speaking of the veep's former home company, according to HalliburtonWatch.org, the company is employing its workers in Iraq through its subsidiary in the Cayman Islands. This means Halliburton won't have to pay unemployment benefits for the workers when they return home.)

CROW EATEN HERE: This is a horror. In a column written June 28, I asserted that more Iraqis (civilians) had now been killed in this war than had been killed by Saddam Hussein over his 24-year rule. WRONG. Really, really wrong.

The only problem is figuring out by how large a factor I was wrong. I had been keeping an eye on civilian deaths in Iraq for a couple of months, waiting for the most conservative estimates to creep over 20,000, which I had fixed in my mind as the number of Iraqi civilians Saddam had killed.

The high-end estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths in this war is 100,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University study published in the British medical journal The Lancet last October, but I was sticking to the low-end, most conservative estimates because I didn't want to be accused of exaggeration.

Ha! I could hardly have been more wrong, no matter how you count Saddam's killing of civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, Hussein killed several hundred thousand of his fellow citizens. The massacre of the Kurdish Barzani tribe in 1983 killed at least 8,000; the infamous gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja killed 5,000 in 1988; and seized documents from Iraqi security organizations show 182,000 were murdered during the Anfal ethnic cleansing campaign against Kurds, also in 1988.

In 1991, following the first Gulf War, both the Kurds and the Shiites rebelled. The allied forces did not intervene, and Saddam brutally suppressed both uprisings and drained the southern marshes that had been home to a local population for more than 5,000 years.

Saddam's regime left 271 mass graves, with more still being discovered. That figure alone was the source for my original mistaken estimate of 20,000. Saddam's widespread use of systematic torture, including rape, has been verified by the U.N. Committee on Human Rights and other human rights groups over the years.

There are wildly varying estimates of the number of civilians, especially babies and young children, who died as a result of the sanctions that followed the Gulf War. While it is true that the ill-advised sanctions were put in place by the United Nations, I do not see that that lessens Hussein's moral culpability, whatever blame attaches to the sanctions themselves -- particularly since Saddam promptly corrupted the Oil for Food Program put in place to mitigate the effects of the sanctions, and used the proceeds to build more palaces, etc.

There have been estimates as high as 1 million civilians killed by Saddam, though most agree on the 300,000 to 400,000 range, making my comparison to 20,000 civilian dead in this war pathetically wrong.

I was certainly under no illusions regarding Saddam Hussein, whom I have opposed through human rights work for decades. My sincere apologies. It is unforgivable of me not have checked. I am so sorry.
Molly Ivins writes about politics, Texas and other bizarre happenings.