What do wild salmon, failed nuclear plants, and Google have in common?

This is a guest blog from ESC Member Organization Save Our Wild Salmon.
They all play a role in how the hugely complex Federal Columbia River Power System – and the agency that runs it, the Bonneville Power Administration – makes and spends money. 

That was the take-home message from a hearing held September 22nd in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power about a controversial bill, the Endangered Species Compliance and Transparency Act, or HR 1719.  The legislation would require federal power agencies such as Bonneville to estimate and report their direct and indirect costs of complying with the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

While the bill is veiled in consumer “right-to-know” language, here’s what consumers should really know: this bill isn’t about transparency.  Instead, HR 1719 would only create confusion (and perhaps ill-will toward protecting fish and wildlife) by distorting costs associated with ESA compliance.  

NW Energy Coalition executive director Sara Patton was among the witnesses who testified at yesterday’s hearing, and described HR 1719 as unnecessary (ESA costs are already readily available to utilities and members of the public from both BPA and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council); one-sided (it would only require the reporting of ESA costs, and not the immense benefits associated with fish and wildlife protection); and virtually impossible to implement (BPA is obligated by a myriad of federal laws and treaties to restore fish and wildlife; HR 1719 proposes no way to distinguish which costs are specifically linked to meeting the requirements of the ESA).

But perhaps most alarmingly, H.R. 1719 codifies a kind of “black market” accounting: by including indirect costs like foregone revenue associated with legally-required salmon protection measures (such as spilling water over the dams to help young fish reach the ocean), the bill states that BPA is entitled to money it could have earned had it violated federal law (a highly controversial practice that BPA currently employs). In other words, under H.R. 1719, power administrations would be entitled to claim lost revenue from power that’s illegal to generate in the first place. Plus, the inclusion of foregone revenue in ESA costs creates the very false impression that these costs are far higher than they are in real life.  Salmon have it tough enough already; they don’t need fuzzy math and phantom kilowatts muddying the waters even further.

But enough about what HR 1719 would do…let’s talk for a moment about what it wouldn’t do.  Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, captured the bill’s shortcomings perfectly when he asked the witnesses whether any of BPA’s other big-ticket items should be spelled out on utilities’ monthly power bills – after all, if we’re trying to inform consumers about their electricity costs, we should make sure all the relevant information is available to them.  As Rep. Markey pointed out, this should include BPA’s payments to retire the massive debt it absorbed when Washington State’s nuclear power system (“WPPSS”) collapsed under its own weight in the 1980s, a sum that clocks in at about $550 million a year, with almost $6 billion in debt still outstanding.  But when asked if BPA’s utility customers should receive this information on their monthly bills, two of the panel’s witnesses (who testified in support of HR 1719, citing the importance of transparency) demurred, saying they weren’t prepared to support the inclusion of any other costs beyond those associated with ESA compliance.  This laser-like focus on ESA costs to the exclusion of all others begs the question: does HR 1719 have an anti-ESA bias?  Just sayin’.

Rep. Markey grappled with this possibility by noting the recent migration of hi-tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, to the Pacific Northwest.  An excellent example is Google’s decision to site its power-thirsty server farm in The Dalles, where it has easy access to some of the most affordable electricity in the United States: BPA-marketed power from the Columbia River dams.  Rep. Markey asked NWEC’s Sara Patton, “Have you heard Google complain about the Endangered Species Act?” to which Ms. Patton replied, “Not once.” Indeed, even with its investments in fish and wildlife protection, BPA provides electricity at rates that are the envy of the nation.  

Here’s the video:

Efforts to blame the Endangered Species Act for economic woes (or jacked-up power rates) are as old as the Act itself.  And like most every other instance of species scapegoating, HR 1719 comes no closer to reality.  Salmon restoration is an integral part of BPA’s responsibilities, and a shared goal of all Northwesterners.  Distorting costs and confusing consumers will only get in the way of reaching that goal.  For that reason alone, HR 1719 should get mothballed along with Washington’s old, failed nuclear plants. 

Gilly Lyons is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.  

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