Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Abolish the Bonneville Power Administration

By Andy Kerr

Column #13 - Go to next column

Length: 750 words

Published: 1/16/97 Wallowa County Chieftain

At the time, when President Roosevelt created the Bonneville Power Administration in 1933 as a "temporary" entity, it made sense. Today it makes sense to abolish this obsolete federal agency.

The world has greatly changed since the Great Depression and bureaucracy no longer serves the public interest. The most important role that BPA serves today is as a production and delivery mechanism—not for electricity, but for pork. Not "the other white meat," but tax- and rate-payer dollars being taken from the pockets of citizens and given to business special interests, who ought to pay their own way.

The electric industry is moving toward a market-based, rather than a cost-based, competitive structure not unlike telecommunications industry. On the whole, such will be good for consumers. They will be able to choose the kind of company and kind of electricity they buy; like telephone calls, electricity is getting cheaper.

Such will also be better for the environment. What little actual good that BPA programs do for the environment and salmon are dwarfed by the overall harm that the agency does.

The greatest remaining example of soviet-style central planning is BPA. What beneficial societal functions that bloated bureaucracy does serve can be met better and with less expense by a combination of market forces and effective oversight by existing energy regulatory agencies.

BPA is also biggest impediment to recovering the Columbia River salmon runs. Serving the special interests that it subsidizes with our money, it resists every substantive measure that can bring back the salmon.

The federal power generation system (the turbines, but not the dams) and the federal power distribution system (the transmission lines) should be parted up and sold to the highest bidders, with revenues dedicated to retiring the region's debt to the US Treasury for having financed the BPA apparatus. The remaining debt should be paid off promptly with a tax on every kilowatt consumed by the region's ratepayers.

While most ratepayers (and taxpayers) would benefit greatly, a few special interests would suffer. The aluminum industry and agribusiness would have to pay market rates for their electricity, no longer being subsidized by the tax-payers and the average residential and commercial ratepayers.

To ensure that free-market electricity doesn't squeeze the poor, state regulators should establish a "lifeline" rate for a reasonable quantity of residential electricity, similar to that which has been done for telephone service. Above a certain amount, everybody would pay fair market value.

The government-industry complex that controls BPA has co-opted many environmentalists by supporting BPA-funded token programs for energy conservation and environmentally benign energy generation. This amount of funding is paltry and more energy conservation would result if consumers could express their preference by choosing companies who provide clean, non-polluting, non-fish killing electricity. Polls have long showed consumers willing to pay more for clean energy; let's give them chance to do so.

Dirty energy appears to be cheaper because of inadequate government regulation of the pollution and other environmental costs of these kinds of energy production.

If coal power generation had to pay for global warming; if nuclear power had to pay for ever-lasting storage of deadly nuclear waste (and wasn't shielded from liability for nuclear accidents by the government); if hydropower had to not kill all those salmon, the cost of these forms of electricity would reflect their true costs. Such costs are not just those of the producer, but also those that the taxpayers, society and the environment pay.

Solar power, which doesn't pollute or kill fish, is the cheapest form of energy, when all costs are factored.

The federal government should retain ownership of the Columbia River dams themselves, because they provide important flood control for which most of the public benefits. As for the locks, they should be privatized along with the turbines. Barge traffic should not be subsidized any more than highway, air and rail traffic. But we should sell the dams too, if the Corps of Engineers doesn't clean up its act.

Abolishing the BPA and letting the free market and government regulatory mechanisms work, would help save the salmon and clean the air, reduce government spending, downsize government, get the government out of the electricity business, and allow for a more efficient economy.

Not abolishing the BPA will mean the opposite. Congress will undoubtedly take up the matter this year. Here's a case where downsizing government will help the salmon, the environment, the ratepayers and the taxpayers.

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