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Notion of Power Act Changes Eyed with Caution

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 22, 2000

Billed as a discussion of proposed Columbia Basin fish and wildlife governance changes, several panelists at a Tuesday hearing argued that pursuing such amendments to the Northwest Power Act might open an unwelcome can of power hungry worms.

Others, such as Govs. John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Marc Racicot of Montana, said that the time may be rife to shore up both the energy and fish and wildlife portions of the 20-year-old Northwest Power Act to protect regional interests.

The governors called the hearing to discuss their proposed legislation that would amend the fish and wildlife provisions of the power act. The act, approved in 1980, established that power generated in the Northwest's federal hydrosystem be sold at cost with preference to public bodies and utilities in the region. It also created the Northwest Power Planning Council, charged with protecting and enhancing fish and wildlife affected by the federal power system and with helping ensure and efficient, economical regional power supply is maintained.

The governor's proposed legislation was called a starting point for discussions on fish and wildlife governance changes needed to strengthen the region's voice in decision-making. But power and fish and wildlife elements cannot be divorced, said the governors.

"I think the situation is further complicated by the energy problems we have seen unfold over the past four to six weeks. The energy supply in this region and in the west in general is short," Kitzhaber said. "Energy suppliers today are charging unprecedented prices…. Those higher prices mean, ultimately, rate increases for the consumer, the potential huge transfer of money out of the region, and also an increased cost for the current measures taken to recover salmon in the Columbia Basin."

Power shortages in California have forced the federal hydrosystem's power marketer, the Bonneville Power Administration, to funnel energy south in recent weeks. Kitzhaber has said that that increased generation now could eventually hamper the system's ability to provide flows for migrating salmon.

Factions across the nation have long cast covetous eyes at the Northwest's low-cost power. A bill proposed in Congress last session would have had the effect of amending the power act, Kitzhaber said, forcing market-based sales that would push up regional energy prices and threaten the economy and fish and wildlife funding.

He argued Tuesday that now, with both energy and ESA fish and wildlife crises looming, may be the time to press for measures to protect the region's interests.

"If I'm going to lose I'd rather lose on the field of battle," Kitzhaber said of outside pressures on the power system and, as a result, fish and wildlife efforts.

"I'm real concerned that we're not in the game," Kitzhaber said. The issue Tuesday was Kitzhaber and Racicot's suggested revisions to the power act that would establish a Fish and Wildlife Committee, under the Council's purview, charged with creating a unified fish and wildlife program. The committee, with state, federal and tribal representation, is seen as a possible step for bringing together various recovery strategists to build a consensus plan. Both Kitzhaber and Racicot were critical of ESA-driven federal planning that affords tribes and states little clout.

"The four Northwest states would be better off if we had more influence in these big decisions that are made regarding fish and wildlife recovery and other related matters," Racicot said. "While I am very interested in what people have to say here today, I must say that I have a very carefully formed bias about the value of home rule and the decisions that ought to be made here -- where we know the problems and, I believe, we have the sensitivity to address those problems in a thoughtful way."

"The region has made a wise investment over a long time in the federal Columbia River power system. Though we hold tremendous asset in the system we do so tenuously, it appears to me. I think that Gov. Kitzhaber and my successor, Judy Martz, and all of you, will have to work carefully to protect in the Northwest what is rightfully ours. I see, as you do, threats to those benefits."

"What I think we are here to do is to kick off a dialogue that really needs to be held," Racicot said. "By floating a draft piece of legislation, we will generate a conversation around the region about these very important matters so that someday soon we will have a firmer grip on the investments that are rightfully ours -- and a stronger hand to play as the federal government makes big decisions that affect our resources here in the Pacific Northwest."

The Public Power Council's Rob Walton insisted that this in not a good time to amend the Northwest Power Act.

He called the act the "bedrock of the region's ability to retain our reliable power supply from the federal power system at cost. Asking Congress to amend the act represents a significant risk.''

"As you well know all too well, members of he California delegation have been working to abolish regional preference to BPA power in an attempt to correct the recent power problems of their own making," Walton said. The midwest/northeast coalition has argued for some time that BPA should be forced to sell its power at market rates."

"All this comes at a time when our region's delegation to Congress has lost a significant amount of seniority, underscoring our concern about introducing legislation to amend the act at this time. The risks, in our opinion, far outweigh the potential gains," Walton said.

William Drummond, manager of the Western Montana Electric Co-Op, also questioned whether it is "the right time politically" to pursue fish and wildlife amendments to the act.

"We should harbor no illusions that the power sections would not be opened as well," Drummond said. "It's a dangerous proposition at best to open up the Power Act."

Angus Duncan of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation praised the governors for their doggedness in seeking governance improvements.

"While I may have design differences with your approach, they are secondary to the importance of insisting that governance remains in its proper place: at the center of the region's debates -- on ESA compliance, on allocating the benefits of the hydropower system, or on preserving those benefits to the region," said the former NWPPC member. "You are both to be commended…."

"I wish the same could be said for other regional leaders but most appear more interested in protecting their bird in the hand than in providing regional leadership," Duncan said. "But we didn't develop the federal hydropower system through self-seeking complacency, and we won't keep the value we have created if we don't rise to the challenges of the present."

"We can't protect what we have up here without moving ahead," he added.

Barry Espenson
Notion of Power Act Changes Eyed with Caution
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 22, 2000

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