AP Photo/Don Ryan
As predictable as summer’s heat, another president tries to appropriate the Pacific Northwest’s largest built asset. As The New York Times reported some two weeks ago, the Trump administration aims to sell the transmission lines of the Bonneville Power Administration to the private sector. That would assuredly raise energy bills throughout Oregon, Washington state, Idaho and western Montana.
President Donald Trump follows George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan in his quest to steal an asset whose value Northwest ratepayers have paid for, at market rates.
This new scheme would penalize residents of the Pacific Northwest in more than one way.
The Columbia River is our region’s most valuable natural resource. The river’s dams and their electricity are the region’s most valuable man-made resource. The Bonneville Power Administration is the overarching authority that sets the operation of the dams and transmits the electricity. The BPA generates more than $4 billion in annual revenue through sales of the system’s electricity.
During the 1980s, President Reagan proposed to sell the entire BPA system. Trump’s proposal is clever, because it avoids the emotional alarm of selling the dams.
What is tactically more serious about the Trump idea is that if you sell off the transmission of power from the dams, you directly affect the way the river is managed. BPA’s management of the dams recognizes there is a trade-off for how much water is saved for fish, how cold and how deep that water is. Few people realize that the BPA runs the largest fish conservation program in the world.
In other words, when you sell the transmission side of the dams, more than power rates is at stake.
Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Washington state U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell are the best positioned to fight the Trump proposal. They are the most senior Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“This is vintage highway robbery,” Wyden says. “The people Trump says he cares about would be whacked around. It would raise their utility bills. This is a transfer of values from people of the Northwest to the U.S. Treasury.”
Congressman Greg Walden is a very senior Republican, but he has not said much about the Trump proposal. It would, of course, penalize Walden’s constituents. But Walden also thought the House’s health care bill was a good deal for Eastern Oregon, even though it would have eviscerated that region’s hospitals and taken insurance away from thousands of his constituents.
Wyden says that Northwest Republicans cannot stand idly by. “This will be a test of Republicans,” he says. “President Trump shouldn’t be allowed to siphon assets paid for by Northwest ratepayers.”
An excellent longterm solution would be for Bonneville to buy itself, using bonds. Then it could become truly a regional agency.