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Commentaries and editorials

NW Utilities Take a Historically Bold Stand in
Response to Secret Snake River Dams Negotiations

by Sean V. O'Brien
Spokesman-Review, December 16, 2023

Public Power Council recently informed BPA it is pausing renegotiation
discussions because of commitments the federal government has made.

Adult Runs to Idaho of Salmon and Steelhead (1962-2022) counted at highest dam of their migratory route. For 85 years, the Bonneville Power Administration has supplied clean, affordable and reliable wholesale power to utility customers who serve the greater Pacific Northwest region's consumers. Known as the "Provider of Choice" to these utility customers, BPA began its early renegotiation engagement in 2016 for contracts that are set to expire in September 2028.

Six years later, in response to unprecedented U.S. federal government settlement talks concerning the Snake River dams that are taking place behind closed doors over ongoing Federal Columbia River Power System litigation, BPA is facing a dire warning.

The Public Power Council, representing more than 100 consumer-owned utilities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, recently informed BPA it is pausing renegotiation discussions because of commitments the federal government has made in these closed-door discussions -- commitments the council believes "pose one of the greatest-ever threats to the FCRPS."

In a letter to BPA's administrator, PPC executive committee leadership wrote, "Although we have been working with BPA in good faith to develop long-term post-2028 power supply contracts, the massive uncertainty regarding the future of the FCRPS makes it difficult for Northwest public power utilities to commit to long-term ... contracts."

They continued, "The Government agreeing to proposed operations without a careful analysis of the power system impacts poses serious concerns for human health and safety, especially among our most vulnerable and historically underserved communities."

The letter goes on to say that the federal government's actions have caused such serious uncertainty regarding the future of the system and exposed it to such reliability threats that customers have no choice but to step away from contract renegotiations.

Amid 30 years of litigation, this is the most formidable move the power community has made in defense of the emissions-free power provided by the FCRPS.

The federal government should not be surprised by this news. For months, representatives of industries and communities impacted by FCRPS decision-making have warned of their grave concerns with the ongoing talks, including the fact that the purported "mediation" led by federal agencies has in reality only included select interest groups.

A Feb. 6 letter from Northwest RiverPartners and the Inland Ports and Navigation Group, which represent thousands of ratepayers, agriculture interests, and local communities, cautions, "Unfortunately, it has become clear that our input is not being heard in the mediation context, leading to more serious concerns that a small group of stakeholders is seeking to prescribe decisions for our entire region regarding our climate response, electricity rates, transportation, grid reliability, food and energy security, and the future of river dependent communities."

At a June 2023 field hearing of the U.S. House's Natural Resources Water, Wildlife and Fisheries Subcommittee in Richland, Chairman Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., focused heavily on the secrecy of the negotiations and concerns that only select groups were being included in direct discussions.

In documents leaked in the days since PPC's letter to BPA, details regarding the government's draft commitments to litigants have confirmed fears shared by utility leaders, members of the Northwest congressional delegation, and government transparency advocates.

In response, Chairman Bentz initiated a follow-up hearing on Dec. 12, during which PPC CEO and Executive Director Scott Simms warned, "We are now facing a U.S. government agreement that could be devastating for Northwest electricity consumers. We anticipate under the best-case scenario the impact to rates would be 5% -- and in the worst case, it would be 50%."

While litigious groups seek to dismantle emissions-free power generation -- thereby setting back the Pacific Northwest's climate goals and clean energy leadership -- power sector leaders are standing strong on behalf of ratepayers, the environment, local communities, and government transparency.

As Simms recently stated of their decision, "We wanted to send the strongest possible signal to U.S. government officials in the nation's capital that are involved in this process to back off and immediately stop messing with the people of the Pacific Northwest and our clean, reliable hydro system."

With this bold step, utility leaders are rightly forcing their voices to be heard on behalf of ratepayers and ensuring the secret negotiations are brought into the light.

Sean V. O'Brien is a visiting fellow with Mountain States Policy Center, an independent research organization based in Idaho, Montana, Eastern Washington and Wyoming. He is executive director of Energy Forward Alliance, a clean energy nonprofit organization based in the Tri-Cities.
NW Utilities Take a Historically Bold Stand in Response to Secret Snake River Dams Negotiations
Spokesman-Review, December 16, 2023

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