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Blackout fears in Year 2000 bug

The first hearing of the Senate Committee on the Year 2000 problem focuses on potential impact on the country's power grid.

The Senate committee devoted to the Year 2000 problem warned of the strong possibility of power shortages due to the computer glitch that plagues computer systems around the country.

To kick off its inaugural hearing held today in Washington, the committee released a survey it conducted on ten of the largest electric, oil, and gas utility firms in the United States to see what Y2K preparedness measures they have in place.

"While the survey is not statistically representative of the whole industry, it does include geographically dispersed firms engaged in all aspects of power generation, and gas and electricity transmission and distribution," said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), the chairman of the Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. "Based on the results of this survey, I am genuinely concerned about the very real prospects of power shortages as a consequence of the millennial date change."

The senator opened the hearing, which included White House officials, senators, federal regulators, industry executives, and analysts, by outlining the results of the survey. The hearing itself focused on the potential impact of the millennium bug on the country's power grid.

According to the survey, only 20 percent of the firms contacted had completed an assessment of their automated systems. One firm did not even know how many lines of computer code it had.

None of the utilities surveyed was assured after making inquiries that their suppliers, vendors, and services would be compliant. This is of concern because utilities are highly dependent on services, suppliers, and other upstream activities to transmit and distribute gas and electricity. "In fact, many power distribution companies are ultimately dependent on foreign oil imports," Bennett said.

Along with releasing the findings of the survey, the committee also looked at what the chances are the millennium bug will cause the country's power grid to fail. The hearing is the first of eight to be held throughout the summer, according to a spokesperson for the committee members.

The committee also will examine the possible impact of Y2K problems on transportation, manufacturing, and state and local government.

The committee also looked at how the utilities industry will be able to ensure continuous and uninterrupted power through the millennial date change, how unavoidable blackouts and brownouts may affect the social well-being of the country, and how far along the industry is in its efforts to become Y2K compliant.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), cochair of the special committee, went even further than Bennett did and said that with only 18 months to go before the end of this century, "I am very concerned that we are going to face serious economic dislocations from this problem."

He added that he is even more concerned that even as government and business leaders are finally acknowledging the seriousness of the issue, they are not thinking about contingency plans that need to be put into place to minimize the harm from widespread failures.

The federal government has increased its attention to the Y2K issue over the past six months after being criticized by many observers for dragging its heels on the issue.

In just the past few months the White House has brought the issue up at the G8 summit in Birmingham, England, and the Senate passed bills to overhaul the Internal Revenue Service and to give financial regulators more power to push Y2K conversion programs within the industry.

Today's hearing was also the first appearance before a Senate panel by the White House's Y2K point man, John Koskinen, according to Senate staffers.

Koskinen thanked the committee for including him in the hearing and echoed the senators' sense of alarm, though he said there are ways to prevent such outcomes. "We need to work together in an ongoing dialogue with the industry to raise awareness of the problem and to facilitate information exchanges," he said.

He also said his council has appointed two chairs, representing the Energy Department for the electric power industry and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for oil and gas, to facilitate dialogue between his group and the two industries.