Critics attack O'Malley over last week's power outages, citing focus on national campaign -- Gazette.Net


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Last week's crippling storm has provoked plenty of frustration at the days-long wait for power to be restored during a heat wave, with some of the criticism landing at the feet of Maryland's chief executive.

“[Gov. Martin O'Malley] has done nothing to address his state's power-utility woes,” wrote journalist and Montgomery County resident Gregg Easterbrook on the website of The Atlantic Monthly earlier this week.

The refrain was a familiar one: O'Malley (D), who also chairs the Democratic Governors Association and is a rumored presidential contender in 2016, has been too concerned with the national stage and not enough with improving Maryland's utilities, particularly Pepco, which has a terrible track record of restoring power after severe snowstorms and hurricanes, Easterbrook wrote.

But laying such blame on O'Malley overstates the level of control the governor and the Maryland Public Service Commission have over utilities, said Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland in St. Mary's City.

“It's unclear to me what he could really do,” Eberly said. Bad storms take out power, which takes time to fix, he said.

The recent weather provided further evidence that the nation's power grid is horribly outdated, “the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of miles of aboveground power lines,” Eberly said.

Burying power lines — which would protect them from the weather — could cost millions of dollars per mile, costs that would be passed on to consumers but would be a tough sell for both regulators and customers, Eberly said.

O'Malley defended the performance of the state's utilities Tuesday, explaining that the suddenness of the storm didn't give them a chance to prepare. The storm, known as a derecho, didn't offer the three or four days of warning that usually accompanies a hurricane, O'Malley told reporters at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency in Reisterstown, where he has spent time every day since the storm.

Without that advance notice, it took a few days for additional work crews to be deployed, he said.

But both Pepco and Baltimore Gas & Electric had delivered ahead of schedule on repairing substations and feeder lines in the wake of the storm, O'Malley said.

Republican lawmakers, such as Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Dist. 34) of Abingdon, have repeatedly criticized O'Malley for his political work outside the state, and Jacobs said recent events were a direct result.

“He dropped the ball on this one,” Jacobs said. “He just doesn't care what's happening in the state.”

Focusing blame on a single individual during such a crisis might be tempting, but it doesn't reflect the combination of factors that cause the problem, said Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, who said he was without power until Tuesday night.

Systemic problems within the utilities combined with increasingly severe weather events — a possible symptom of global warming — would require comprehensive hearings to analyze what went wrong and what needed to be done, Raskin said.

But O'Malley is somewhat guilty of raising the expectations for his own performance with tough talk about keeping utilities such as Pepco in line, Eberly said.

“Nobody will have their boot farther up Pepco's backside than I will,” O'Malley told reporters Sunday.

In 2010, Pepco was fined a record $1 million by the PSC for failing to fix systemic problems that led to prolonged outages.

O'Malley also has taken credit for securing benefits for Maryland consumers in the recent acquisition of Baltimore's Constellation Energy Group, which owns BGE, by the Chicago-based Exelon Corp.

Initially critical of the deal, the governor gave his approval after provisions were added establishing more solar and wind power, 6,000 new jobs and a $100 credit for BGE customers.

In a written response to Easterbrook's article, PSC Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian said it was fair to criticize the commission for not tightening regulations sooner, but recently adopted rules would hold utilities to a higher standard.

In 2011, lawmakers adopted toughened regulations for utilities, including fines of up to $25,000 per day for violating reliability standards that will take effect in July 2013.

Eberly said he was impressed with the administration's use of social media sites such as Twitter to give updates on power restoration efforts and offer tips such as where cooling centers had opened.

Even if power was out in their homes, many people stayed in the loop using their smartphones, he said.

dleaderman@gazette.net