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Proposed Privatization of Public Power System Met with Criticism

by Countable | 7.28.17

What’s the story?

On the table in the administration’s budget is a proposal to sell-off large parts of the federal government’s energy transmission infrastructure to private companies, including the Pacific Northwest’s Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). Opinions of the plan in Congress and among citizens differs. Critics fear cost increases when profit becomes a goal, while supporters look to the innovation and operational efficiency that they believe will come with privatization.

Why does it matter?

The Columbia River and its tributaries, which spans 300,000 square miles, involves a complex system of 31 hydroelectric dams, 299 substations, 15,000 miles of transmission lines, all overseen by the BPA. The BPA provides power to 12 million people. Along with two other systems in Colorado and Oklahoma, the Trump administration has proposed selling off the transmission infrastructure to raise $4.9 billion dollars for the federal government.

The New York Times published an extensive report about the questions those working on and around the Columbia River have about the plan. Terry Oxley, a tugboat captain on the river wondered how it would actually all work and wanted to be involved in the planning:

"I guess I want more input. Who’s going to control it? Who’s going to have the say so? When are they going to release the water, the flood control, the spill patterns for the fish? It’s such a big deal, and it’s all intertwined."

Native tribes who were catastrophically affected by the building of the dams wonder how they will fit in the plans. Jaime A. Pinkham, the executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and a member of the Nez Percé tribe told the Times:

"Obligations are tied to the federal relationship. When you privatize, what happens to the voice of the Indian people?”

But not all folks connected to the BPA oppose the plan. Citizens in southeast Oregon who’ve worked hard to develop infrastructure for harnessing wind power have seen their payments for power supply cut-off when the river is running high. Kate McCullough, a farmer in Sherman County, OR who depends on those power payments to balance out fluctuations in wheat prices, welcomes the idea of new management:

"The BPA does a terrible job. I don’t know that privatizing would be bad at all."

The Oregon congressional delegation is split on the administration’s plan. Republican Representative Greg Walden’s office offered this statement to OregonLive:

"The initiatives modernizing our energy infrastructure and promoting our nation's energy abundance would undoubtedly make positive impacts on our constituents' lives. The president's proposals show the difficult choices facing the country as we work to reduce the deficit, protect our security, and grow jobs."

In contrast, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden opposes the plan. It’s come up, on and off, since the Reagan administration and Wyden’s worked to block it throughout his congressional tenure:

"I successfully fought Republicans' efforts more than a decade ago to privatize Bonneville Power, and I will fight this misguided attempt. Public power customers in the Pacific Northwest have paid for the system and their investment should not be put up for sale."

What can you do?

What are your questions about how a public/private utility partnership would work for these western energy systems? Should the federal government be allowed to sell off these assets? What protections, if any, for citizens should be involved in the deals if they proceed?

Use the Take Action button to tell your reps what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

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