Keep BPA Strong through Tough Timesby Editors
Seattle Times - February 16, 2003
Bear with the Bonneville Power Administration.
Northwest economies have developed, in large part, with the help of the relatively low-cost hydropower produced from the federal power-marketing agency's 29 dams. And, despite erosion of that advantage because of the manipulated Western energy crisis of 2000-'01, Bonneville continues to be an asset to the Northwest that should be protected.
Bonneville announced this month that its power rates might increase by about 15 percent on Oct. 1, the lingering effects of the once-overheated energy market and deals forged to get through it. Figure in the effects of an unusually dry winter on sales of surplus hydropower and rates might go higher.
That would be a tough hit for the Northwest, which is struggling through a persistent economic downturn. But Bonneville's long-term survival — financial and political — will be key to the long-term health of the region.
For the second year, Bonneville is warning that making its annual payment on the federal debt that built the dams might be difficult. It's considering such drastic measures as taking out a short-term loan or using proceeds from refinanced debt to pay for operations.
A missed payment could make the agency vulnerable to renewed proposals to sell off Bonneville to private interests. Despite California's disastrous experiment with deregulation, federal officials have proposed to deregulate transmission lines that potentially could siphon off Bonneville's benefits even further.
Bonneville has cleaved about $140 million in internal operations costs — including freezes on hiring, travel, training, research and development. It is holding its hydropower operations to 2001 spending levels through 2006 and restricting its spending on fish and wildlife programs.
Bonneville's critics, including some public utilities that have sued, argue the agency is in this fix because of ill-advised deals it struck during the heat of the crisis. Fair argument, but no one at the time could know how long the crisis could last or the extent of the outrageous and predatory market manipulations by companies like Enron.
Rate increases are the last thing that Northwest utilities, businesses or residents need right now, but ensuring Bonneville can make its treasury payments and be restored to economic vitality must be a top priority.
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