WHO COULD possibly want electricity rates in the Northwest to go higher? An alliance of West Coast greens and East Coast smokestack industries, that’s who. Together, they’re pressing a campaign to cut off additional funding for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the Portland-based federal agency that sells hydroelectric power to Washington and Oregon, providing nearly half of all the power used in the Northwest. Seattle City Light and Puget Sound Energy are both customers of BPA, which sells power at cost, well below market rates.
The Green Scissors coalition—which includes environmental groups prominent in the Puget Sound region—last week listed Bonneville as a major target in its campaign against “wasteful and environmentally harmful spending.” Last year, Bonneville sought congressional approval for $2 billion in loans to rebuild its aging transmission grid; the request was shot down, but now, with support from the president, the agency hopes to land at least $700 million in aid from the U.S. treasury.
But Dick Munson of the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a pro-business think tank, says Bonneville’s customers (i.e., you lucky S.O.B.’s with low power bills in the Northwest), not the nation’s taxpayers, should pay for the upgrades.
Friends of the Earth’s regional spokesperson Shawn Cantrell adds that Bonneville already carries $7.5 billion in treasury debt from dam and transmission-line construction and is also liable for the $6 billion that was sunk into the Hanford Nuclear Reservation project if the lone nuke operating there fails to keep up with the payments. BPA has placed taxpayers on the hook for too much already, Cantrell says.
But environmentalists’ primary grievance with Bonneville stems from decisions the agency made during last year’s drought to close off spillways that grant migrating salmon safe passage over dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. Salmon instead had to pass through the dam’s generating turbines, causing what Cantrell describes as a “massacre” that dropped last year’s salmon survival rate to its lowest point since certain species were declared endangered in 1990.
Bonneville spokesperson Ed Mosey responds that the friends of the fish ought to think twice about allying themselves with pro-business groups engaged in regional politicking. Punishing BPA’s ratepayers because of a disagreement over salmon is counterproductive, says Mosey, because it won’t end up saving any more fish. (Bonneville has committed $186 million this year for wildlife habitat recovery, according to the Northwest Power Planning Council.) Mosey adds that the Northwest faces rolling blackouts in the near future without new transmission lines. And BPA investments ultimately benefit taxpayers, he argues, because the agency is one of the few that pay back federal loans with interest.