White House Briefing, August 15, 2003


Friday August 15, 2003

Power outages, Middle East

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan briefed.

Following is a transcript of the briefing:

(begin transcript)


Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

August 15, 2003


Aboard Air Force One En Route Waco, Texas

4:24 P.M. CDT

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody. I wanted to come back here and provide a little tick-tock of the last day-and-a-half and kind of walk back through the last day-and-a-half, from the President's standpoint, and then I'm happy to take whatever questions, after that.

Going back to yesterday, the President was having lunch with military personnel at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar when the power outages hit the Northeast and parts of the Midwest. And Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin informed the President -- this was around 1:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time -- about the blackouts.

Q: Daylight time?

MR.. McCLELLAN: Yes, 1:30 p.m., Pacific Standard Time.

MR. DICKENS: Daylight time.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q: You said, standard, again.

MR. McCLELLAN: Daylight time, I'm sorry. The President told the Deputy Chief of Staff to -- I stand corrected by Judy Keen. But the President told the Deputy Chief of Staff to stay on top of things and gather together the facts and make sure that the federal government was acting and doing all it could to help state and local authorities address the situation. This would include the transportation, public health and energy sectors. It was important to make sure we minimize the impact and find out the cause at that point.

The President was updated a short time later, right after the lunch, by the Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin and Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley. This was when we were heading to the President's interview with Armed Forces TV -- Radio and TV.

Following the interview, we departed for the hotel at San Diego. En route to the hotel, the President was in contact with the Chief of Staff, Andy Card. And then the President continued to focus throughout the afternoon on making sure that the federal government was responding, that we were acting -- activating and deploying all necessary and available resources and on standby to assist in any way possible.

He continued to be updated throughout the afternoon by the Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff, the Deputy National Security Advisor. He also monitored some reports on television. This was while he was in his hotel room.

Q: What network?

MR. McCLELLAN: The cable stations. And then it was at 3:30 Pacific Daylight Time that some of the senior staff on the road participated in a White House coordinated videoconference call with relevant federal agencies, to make sure that everything was coordinated, that we were assisting wherever needed with state and local authorities.

The President also spoke with Secretary Ridge from his hotel room to make sure we were in close contact with state and local authorities.

Q: What time was that, do you know?

MR. McCLELLAN: This was shortly before he made remarks to the pool. And keep in mind that during the afternoon there were a number -- beginning immediately after the power outages -- there were a number of federal agencies that were activating and deploying resources and that were in close contact with state and local authorities. This would have included the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, Health and Human Services and other agencies and departments, as well.

Then the President made remarks to the pool around -- I think that was around 5:20 p.m., Pacific Daylight Time. The President continued to receive updates the rest of the evening. Federal departments and agencies continued working throughout the evening, as well, on the situation.

Then this morning the President was updated -- I think this was probably around 5:45 a.m. this morning -- by senior staff that was with him. The President had his usual -- the President continued to be updated throughout the morning and the day, even just when we got on the plane here recently, by the Deputy Chief of Staff, by the Deputy National Security Advisor and others.

The President had his usual briefings following his initial update this morning. After the intelligence briefing, the President contacted Secretary Snow to receive an update on the markets. Secretary Snow informed the President that the markets all opened in a timely and orderly way. The President departed for the morning event at the Santa Monica National Recreation Area, and he continued to receive updates on the way to Marine One and he also received updates on Marine One from senior staff that was traveling with him.

Then of course he spoke with the pool at the park and addressed the blackout in his remarks, as well. When he got back to the hotel, the President contacted Governor Pataki, Governor Rowland, Governor Granholm, Governor Taft and he also spoke with Mayor Bloomberg.

Just to kind of summarize those conversations, the President praised the response efforts of state and local authorities. He asked the officials if they were getting everything they needed. And he stated that we would get to the bottom of this and determine the cause. He also said essentially what he said to you all in the pool, that this is a wakeup call, that we need to act to find solutions so that we can prevent future power outages. And then again, as I said, he has already received some additional updates upon boarding Air Force One here, upon departure.

I do want to make -- in fact, we'll have this for you here shortly in hard copy, one statement. The United States and Canada have today agreed to form a joint task force to identify the causes of the recent power outage that affected North America and to seek solutions to help prevent future outages. The task force will be jointly chaired by United States Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Herb Dhaliwal. Federal, state, provincial and local authorities, as well as private-sector electricity providers will be invited to contribute to the work of the task force.

Just a little bit more information. We are -- the last report I heard, which is fairly recent, was that we are still working to determine the cause of the power outages. The North American Electric Reliability Council has been working on this since yesterday, as well.

And I think with that, I'll just open up to questions.

Q: Any calls to lawmakers, Senator Domenici?

MR. McCLELLAN: One other call that he will be making any minute now is to Prime Minister Chrétien, to talk about the power outages and to talk about how we can move forward together in this joint task force to find solutions to help prevent future outages.#

Q: Does that mean, handed out at the White House?

MR. McCLELLAN: It should be going out on the ground now, and we'll get it -- as soon as we'll get a hard copy, we'll get that to you here.

Q: What is the President's take on events in the Middle East --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let's finish on this. Any other questions on the power outages?

Q: Has the President asked for any readout or estimate of what impact this might have on the regional economy of New York or any of the areas affected or the country as a whole?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he's been updated on a number of fronts. I just said, he spoke with Secretary Snow this morning. I think right now, one of the most important things to do is to find out the cause of this, in addition to making sure that we're getting power up everywhere. They are still working to address some of the outages. And as you heard, the President's remarks earlier, the state and local authorities have responded well to this situation. The American people in these affected areas have responded calmly. And the President applauds the efforts of the local and state authorities in their response efforts. And we continue to be available to assist in any way possible in this effort. But his focus is, let's find out the cause, which still may take some time, and then work together to find solutions to prevent this from happening in the future.

Q: I understand that, but what I'm asking --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the markets opening in the way that they did showed the resilience of our markets.

Q: Did the President and Secretary Ridge talk at all about the Homeland Security lessons from this, and any vulnerabilities that might have been revealed by this incident?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that -- again, what you want to do is you need to determine the cause. We need to do that, then we need to look -- and that's what we'll do with this joint task force, as well, is look at the solutions, to prevent this from happening. Obviously in the post September 11th world we lived in, the President talked about how that helped prepare state and local authorities for emergencies, not only -- we talked about this in the aftermath of September 11th, the preparation and the response -- the preparation and steps that we were taking to improve our homeland security would also help in other emergency situations. And I think that that's evident by some of the response you've seen in this situation.

But this is the time to seek solutions; it's not a time for finger pointing. And it's a time for us to work together. The President has previously laid out, as part of his National Energy Policy report, more than two years ago, the importance of modernizing the electrical grid. It's antiquated, it's outdated. And so in the scope of -- as we determine the cause of all this and seek solutions, we'll be looking at that, as well.

Q: -- start using this event as a way to sell the energy bill and try to push that toward agreement?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, look, this is the day after these power outages first hit. Let's determine the cause, let's look at ways we can work together to seek solutions. But obviously this is an important priority. We want to make sure we do everything we can to help prevent future power outages.

Q: He's already started talking about it in that context. He did it a couple of times today. So is this something that he's going to sort of add to his basic speech, when he talks about the energy bill, that this event --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, that's what I said, this is only the day after this all happened. Right now it's a time to make sure that we're assisting state and local authorities in every way possible. It's a time to make sure that we're doing everything we can to determine the cause of this situation, the cause of this blackout, the power outages. And then it's a time to begin to working together to seek solutions. We know that the grid is outdated, that it's antiquated, and that it needs to be modernized. It is important to act to prevent this from happening in the future.

Q: One of the reasons we're having these problems are power companies are reluctant to build more lines, because they're so costly, and they're reluctant to have to turn around and pass those costs on to consumers. Does the President believe that the government has a role in trying to build or construct these new lines?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President, I think if you look back at -- again, this was one of the key conclusions of the National Energy Policy report. If you look back at that, we specifically called for some steps to -- where the federal government could play an important role in addressing this issue.

Q: Can you give me some examples?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that -- he's proposed strengthening the transmission grid to ensure that the federal government could step in as a last resort to site new power lines in the national interest, where actions have failed to take place. He's proposed that the federal government should have more authority to remove transmission bottlenecks. So those are some of the things that we've proposed.

But again, right now, we need to continue to determine the cause of this blackout, this power outage, so we can better understand what is needed to address the situation. And that's what we're doing.

Q: Will the time come where the government may have to bear some of the cost of fixing this?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think -- we can sit here and speculate about a lot of things, but again, let's determine the cause and let's work to address this in a cooperative way, so we can find solutions. And that's what we're going to do. The President is interested in finding solutions, not finger pointing.

Q: Let me try again. Does the President believe that consumers may ultimately have to pay a higher price for energy to ultimately fix this problem, be it the small issue we had or the broader picture?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I think that's jumping ahead of where we are right now in the current situation with these power outages still being addressed and the cause still being determined. The President is obviously committed to making sure that energy prices are affordable and that we keep energy prices low. I mean, when you talk about the national energy policy, it's working to address that, to reduce our reliance upon foreign sources of energy and to improve our electrical system here in the United States.

Q: Do you have anything this weekend?

MR. McCLELLAN: Nothing expected at this point. Obviously, I'll keep you updated if there's any change.

Q: The Middle East, recent events there with Israelis attacking the Palestinians, is this -- how does the President feel about the end of the --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the parties are continuing to talk amongst themselves. That's important to continue to have the dialogue. Obviously we spoke out the other day about the recent suicide bombings. And that is a further reminder that everybody has a responsibility to end terrorism and to dismantle the terrorist organizations. And the President's message is very clear in that regard. We all have responsibilities to act to end terrorism.

Obviously we've always said that Israel has the right to defend herself. And it's important for all parties, for Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab nations, to keep in mind the consequences of all those actions.

Q: Thank you, Scott.

MR. McCLELLAN: Anything else? We'll have that statement out to you quickly.

END 4:41 P.M. CDT

-- # # # #

Addendum to Gaggle

MR. McCLELLAN: This is a readout from the phone call between the President and Prime Minister Chrétien. The phone call lasted approximately 10 minutes. The purpose of the call was to discuss the blackout. The two leaders discussed the impact that the blackouts had on millions of people who were affected by it.

Both leaders paid tribute to the character and the community -- and the spirit of community of the American people and the Canadian people in this difficult situation. The two leaders discussed the importance of the joint task force acting as quickly as possible to find solutions that can help prevent future power outages. The President spoke about the importance of finding the cause and finding a solution and modernizing the electrical delivery system.

The two leaders also talked about how the task force may be an opportunity to improve and enhance overall energy cooperation between the United States and Canada. And they touched on some other bilateral issues, as well.


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