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NW States Agree to Battle for BPA

by Chris Mulick, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, February 2, 2001

PORTLAND -- The four Northwest states reached a landmark agreement Thursday night avoiding a messy fight over the distribution of the region's cheap hydroelectric power as it prepares to battle would-be raiders of the Bonneville Power Administration.

Some 50 politicians, including the governors of Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho crammed a downtown hotel conference room to strategize how best to protect the agency in a rare public display of unrehearsed political problem solving.

"This will be one of the most important meetings we've had in the Northwest in a long time," said Tom Beck, a Montana state senator as he convened a meeting of the Legislative Council on River Governance.

The organization made up of legislators from each Northwest state was formed to discuss issues such as fisheries and dam breaching but recently has sought to thrust itself into debate about how to preserve the BPA for the region.

The agency markets all the cheap hydropower produced at the 29 federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers, selling it to Northwest utilities and aluminum plants. It has long been targeted by congressional delegations from other regions, most notably the so-called "Midwest-Northeast Coalition," that lusts for such inexpensive juice. California has joined the fray having seen wholesale power prices skyrocket since May.

To date, Northwest lawmakers have been unable to develop regional consensus for a plan to defend the BPA from outside interests that want it to sell its energy at market rates or make it accessible to other regions of the country. That's largely been because Washington Gov. Gary Locke has been loathe to join if it meant the allocation of Bonneville power were to be changed and spread more evenly throughout the four states.

The Northwest Power Act gives preference to public utilities, of which Washington has the highest concentration. Those utilities, including the ones serving the Tri-Cities, get as much BPA power as they need, while private utilities are given far less.

But Oregon state Sen. Gene Derfler, the most aggressive advocate for a regional takeover of the agency, told Locke Thursday that such a reallocation wouldn't be necessary.

"We're not after your power. We don't want to change what you have," he told Locke, urging him to join the other states in forming a Northwest plan to take to Congress. "If we don't have a plan back there, we're going to get what they give us. If that doesn't scare you, I don't know what will."

"Reallocation of the power supply is off the table," Locke said later. "If we are talking about reallocating that power, I have great concerns."

He also tried to reassure the assembly the four governors have "long been united." But last spring, Locke told the Northwest Power Planning Council he wasn't interested in taking up the issue, saying he wanted to wait until new BPA contracts are approved. That still is about six months off.

He later said he feared the state would end up losing cheap hydropower under such an agreement.

After the meeting, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said he's comfortable with the approach, even if it "does create some inequality."

Meaty issues still remain. Most prominently, lawmakers must decide whether to seek to own Bonneville outright, as Derfler advocates, or simply devise a scheme to play defense in Congress. Some worry the states wouldn't have the financial ability to maintain adequate reserves needed to keep the agency running and aren't so sure they want to be liable for restoring fish runs.

Complicating matters is the Northwest congressional delegation's relative lack of political strength, both in numbers and seniority.

California has more than three times the votes of all four Northwest states combined.

"Do the math," Kitzhaber said.

He also bemoaned the loss of heavyweights such as former Oregon Sens. Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, now compounded by the defeat of Washington Sen. Slade Gorton.

"Whether you supported Slade or his opponent, that is a great loss in seniority," said Kitzhaber, a Democrat, of the Republican.

Legislators from each state were given time to make their pitch to the governors, hoping problem solving wouldn't be limited to the so-called "Three Sovereigns" -- federal, state and tribal governments.

"We want you governors to know we want to get on board and help you solve this problem," Beck said. "It's time for the political leaders in the Northwest to organize."

The developments came on the eve of a series of roundtable discussions on energy matters as a part of the Western Governors' Association meetings. The governors will be joined today by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham as well as tribal leaders, federal regulators and utility chiefs, among others.

Chris Mulick
NW States Agree to Battle for BPA
Tri-City Herald, February 2, 2001

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