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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

July 16, 2013 at 10:39 AM

The long arm of Bonneville gets slapped

The most interesting story in today’s Seattle Times is Lynda V. Mapes look at a property owner trying to save a historic site along the Columbia River from a new power line proposed by the Bonneville Power Administration. A BPA contractor has already bulldozed a Yakima burial cairn — a “mistake” among “bumps in the road,” a spokeswoman for the agency conceded. Meanwhile, land owner Robert Zornes and his wife, “two uneducated, lower- middle-class people in Forks,” have marshaled resistance that has held up the new transmission line for more than a year.

This isn’t the only headache facing the federal agency. According to the Washington Post, the Energy Department has placed the top two officials of the BPA on administrative leave “after they retaliated against a half-dozen employees who were helping an inspector general inquiry about hiring practices.” You can read the Inspector General’s interim report here.

A quick primer for non-mossbacks: The Bonneville Power Administration was created during the New Deal to market power from Bonneville Dam on the Columbia and extend rural electrification throughout the Northwest. Although not as consequential or far reaching, BPA was a distant cousin of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Bonneville Dam and Grand Coulee Dam were among the signature projects that provided jobs during the Great Depression and built infrastructure that remains essential today (others, besides the TVA, included Hoover Dam on the Colorado River). In 1940, BPA  snagged Alcoa as an industrial customer, with hydroelectric power providing for inexpensive aluminum production. Aluminum is used to built planes. The rest is history.

Today BPA, headquartered in Portland, provides about a third of the electric power used in the Northwest, directly supplying 140 public utilities. Using 31 federal hydro projects in the Columbia River Basin, one non-federal nuclear plant and several other small non-federal power plants, it markets the electricity in a service area that consists of 13 million people in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, western Montana and parts of eastern Montana, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. (The Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation operate the dams). As importantly, BPA controls three-quarters of the region’s transmission network. The agency is self-funding. It is also a backbone of the relatively cheap hydropower that underpins the Northwest economy. And like many such agencies, it often operates under the radar despite its vast reach and potent influence.

According to the Post, BPA administrator Bill Drummond and chief operating officer Anita Decker were escorted out of their offices Monday. Drummond had only been appointed to the top post in February. His deputy, Elliot Mainzer, was named acting administrator. According to the BPA web site, Drummond joined the agency in 2011. Before that, he was manager of the Western Montana Electric Generating and Transmission Cooperative for 17 years. From 1988 to 1994, he led the Public Power Council, an association of all Northwest publicly owned utilities.

The move comes after “retaliation” against employees helping the agency’s inspector general investigate hiring practices, including putting veterans at a disadvantage in getting jobs. It falls against a backdrop of fighting between the Energy Department and the U.S. House over upgrading the power grid.

What all this means to Robert Zomes remains to be seen. But perhaps he’s picking up some new allies in scrutinizing the moves of BPA.

And Don’t Miss: Graphic: America’s part-time employment problem | The Century Foundation

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Gold in Goldman Sachs

Trading doubles its earnings

Jobs? That takes some brass

0 Comments | More in Pacific Northwest economy | Topics: Bonneville Power Administration

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