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Gov. Locke Won't Join Coalition to Buy BPA

by Chris Mulick
Tri-City Herald, January 13, 2000

TACOMA - As expected, Washington Gov. Gary Locke told the Northwest Power Planning Council on Wednesday that he has no desire to join a regional coalition seeking to buy the Bonneville Power Administration.

But supporters of the idea say they still hold out hope he will reconsider.

Bonneville, which sells all the cheap power produced by federal hydroelectric dams in the Northwest and the nuclear power plant at Hanford, has been trying to stimulate interest in the plan.

The electricity the agency sells, which makes up about 46 percent of the juice consumed in the Northwest, is the cheapest in the country. As such, private utilities and Northwest aluminum plants are scrambling to get as much BPA power as possible as the agency finishes negotiating new power contracts this spring.

But BPA Administrator Judi Johansen fears congressional support is growing for selling the federal agency and distributing its benefits across the country in one thin sheet. If Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana can band together, she figures the states could buy Bonneville first and preserve its benefits for the Northwest.

But while Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has been pushing the plan aggressively, Locke is backing out. This isn't the time to be debating the issue because it would interfere with Bonneville's current efforts to negotiate new power contracts, Locke told the power council, which oversees power planning and fish and wildlife mitigation activities.

"I think this would lead us into a multiyear debate," said Locke, who called Kitzhaber a few weeks ago to inform him of his stance. "I think such a debate would divide us."

That's because purchasing the BPA would require changes to the Northwest Power Act, which determines how the cheap power that Bonneville sells is distributed. The current formula calls for public utilities and rural electric cooperatives to be given preference. They are offered all the power they need at the cheapest rates.

Those rates consistently undercut the Northwest market - by large margins during times when electricity is in highest demand, such as during winter cold snaps or summer heat waves.

Because most of Washington is served by public utilities while private utilities cover most of Oregon, the Evergreen State receives more benefits of the federal system. That means if benefits of the federal system are reallocated, Washington would have the most to lose.

"We would be very forceful of protecting our share in the region," said Locke, who read a brief statement without fielding questions before scurrying off to other business.

Johansen, who also was on hand, said she believes Locke may reconsider.

"I didn't hear him closing the door," she said during a break in the meeting. "I think it's a question of timing."

But the Northwest can't wait too long, she said. Supporters of the plan to secure the federal system warn that the longer the Northwest takes to develop its own pitch to Congress, the greater the risk the region will lose the system's benefits altogether.

"That's all the more reason to start now," said Eric Bloch, a power council member representing Oregon. "When the wolf is knocking at the door, it may be too late."

Bloch said Washington ultimately would need to give up some of its share to galvanize enough support among the other Northwest states. The way he sees it, Washington can either lose a little now or a lot later.

"I think that might be something that's necessary," he said.

Tom Karier, representing Washington on the council, reiterated Locke's concern about the bad timing of the purchase proposals. In the long term, there's just not enough BPA juice to go around.

"You can't reallocate more power to everyone, which is essentially the request," Karier said.

Chris Mulick
Gov. Locke Won't Join Coalition to Buy BPA
Tri-City Herald, January 13, 2000

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