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Western Governors Take On Energy Crisis

by Rocky Barker and Gregory Hahn
The Idaho Statesman, February 2, 2001

Leaders will discuss ways to tackle region's troubles

Western governors are searching for ways to keep the lights on without killing fish, bankrupting utilities and emptying consumers' pockets.

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne will chair a meeting of the Western Governor's Conference today in Portland that he hopes will lead to a collaborative process for resolving the region's electricity crisis. Meanwhile, Idaho lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday they hope will shield Idaho from the effects of electricity deregulation.

But with Idaho Power Co. seeking a 24 percent rate increase and federal dam operators generating power at Orofino's Dworshak Dam with water normally held for salmon, the effects of the crisis have already hit Idaho.

"This is no longer simply a California dilemma," Kempthorne said.

The leaders of nine Western states and several Indian tribes hope to agree to a list of projects and ideas that could relieve the electricity shortfall that began in California. Newly confirmed U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Curt L. Hebert Jr., chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, will be taking part.

In the Idaho Legislature Thursday, the House State Affairs Committee introduced a bill to make permanent the temporary electric utility regulation changes lawmakers made in a special session in December.

The measure would extend the powers of the Public Utility Commission and, legislators hope, secure the state's regulatory control over the industry.

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb is sponsoring the proposal, which was drafted over a couple of months by consumer-owned utilities lobbyist Roy Eiguren and about 20 other state and private attorneys. It quickly passed the body in a four-hour special session Dec. 8 and is expected to pass easily this winter.

Newcomb calls the electricity issue the single most important threat Idaho has faced in his tenure in government. It affects perhaps the state's best business asset -- low power rates -- and its lifeblood -- water.

The legislation stems from a court decision lawmakers thought invalidated one of the state's major utility rules, threatening the state's regulatory control and the low rates that control helps guarantee.

Kempthorne agreed to the special session but required that the lawmakers revisit the issue this winter. The bill introduced Thursday was virtually identical to the special law, but it also includes two provisions allowing aggrieved customers of municipal power companies and consumer-owned co-operatives to take their complaints to District Court.

A group of lawmakers urged the four Northwest governors to develop a coordinated effort to ensure the benefits of the Columbia River hydroelectric system stay in the Northwest.

The legislators, including Sen Laird Noh, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and Cameron Wheeler, chairman of the House Resources and Conservation Committee, also urged the governors to consider the impact of deregulation on water rights.

Rocky Barker and Gregory Hahn
Western Governors Take On Energy Crisis
The Idaho Statesman, February 2, 2001

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