West Coast Conservation Director
Member, Steering Committee
The year allotted to the Comprehensive Review Steering Committee has come to an end. Members of the committee and our large following of interested participants and observers have invested thousands of hours in this process. We have struggled with the uncertainties of the changing utility industry and simultaneously with the competing demands of the constituencies that depend on and benefit from the largesse of the Columbia River system. We have understood the importance of our work and have taken it seriously. We have been advised that the Pacific Northwest must develop an effective response to the unsettled utility environment, that national legislation and administrative and industry changes are inevitable. But, most importantly, we have been warned that failure to achieve a broad regional consensus on a regional plan will risk loss of the benefits of the river system. I am dissenting from the Steering Committee report in part because we have not achieved that required regional consensus on fish and power issues.
We have made important progress on some very difficult matters in this review. For example, we have called for market-oriented experiments in energy conservation, renewable resources and low income energy assistance. We have said clearly that no recommendations from this review should be pursued in a manner that alters, impairs or undermines the federal government's trust obligations and the treaty and other rights of Native Americans. We have called conceptually for a mechanism that should help ensure the stranded costs of the system–the WPPSS debt or others that might arise–can be paid. If it is needed and if it works, that stranded cost mechanism will be very important. We have sketched a path that could allow the region to continue purchasing power at cost and pass those benefits on to regional consumers–if regional consensus and national agreement allow the region to pursue that anomalous course in the increasingly market-driven utility environment. On all these issues, the Steering Committee has made important advances. Nonetheless, I dissent from the committee report and offer the following constructive observations.
First, we must acknowledge there is important and difficult unfinished business that must be attended to before we will have a comprehensive package. The work on a comprehensive regional package is simply not complete at this point. We do not now have anything resembling a consensus about the inextricably connected fish and wildlife issues that must be addressed if an energy industry restructuring package is to move forward smoothly and effectively. I can report that fact with certainty based on my recent conversations with fishery advocates and Native Americans and their organizations; and it is clearly reflected in their comments submitted to our committee.
Without consensus on fish and wildlife matters, we do not have a regional consensus on utility industry restructuring–not even on the sale of power in the region at cost. And, as Senator Hatfield told the Steering Committee, we need to have a consensus if the region intends to continue purchasing power at cost; and we need to have a solid, agreed-upon explanation for that practice.
Key fish-related issues that need to be addressed include:
- The question whether the Steering Committee's proposals improve the ability of the power system to meet its fish and wildlife obligations.
- Whether there are changes that could further improve that ability.
- Whether the proposals honor or undermine the fish and wildlife obligations of the nation and the region.
- Whether the continued purchase of power "at cost" clearly includes the costs of fish and wildlife restoration.
- Whether the benefits of the river will be shared fairly if the proposal goes forward.
- Whether we can establish a system of power and river governance that will effectively change the operation of the power system in order to restore fish and wildlife populations in the Basin.
- The development of specific commitments to actions that will restore the biological health and productivity of the Columbia River–for it is a biological system not simply an economic engine for the region.
I am not going to revisit the initial mistakes of the review process. Suffice it to say that we would be in much better shape today if the power and fish issues–including those listed above–could have been addressed on an equal footing, together and simultaneously. We would be much further along if the state, tribal and federal governments could have reached a prior government-to-government understanding of this process and the issues it needed to address. We should not repeat those mistakes in the future, as they helped produce the lack of regional consensus we clearly have today.
To get at our important unfinished business, the federal, state and tribal governments in this region need to be convened immediately in a serious, sustained, senior-level effort to consider and resolve the key issues listed above–to develop the fish and wildlife package without which there is no comprehensive regional proposal. These issues should not–and will not–be addressed successfully by the states acting alone, through a few consultations, through the announced Northwest Power Planning Council amendment process next year, or by random and ill-advised efforts at Congressional action on pieces of this package. We will need to engage all three sovereigns–federal, state and tribal–in a co-equal decision-making role and with formal dispute resolution, or we will continue to make little progress on fish and wildlife restoration. Unilateral action by the states or the Council will only lead to suspicion, gridlock and failure–and failure to make progress serves no one's interest.
We can not turn back–or turn away from the tasks ahead. We will now have to play catch-up and we will have to be prepared to modify this regional power proposal to provide greater accommodations for fish and wildlife needs and obligations. For it is clear to virtually all the scientists who have dispassionately assessed the situation that the Columbia River and its salmon runs and other fish and wildlife are in deep trouble. And they can not be restored without major changes, particularly in the hydroelectric system, but not solely there. As I have noted throughout the deliberations of the committee, we are as a region and a nation obligated to protect and restore those fish and wildlife populations. And the power system and its beneficiaries must continue to carry the bulk of that obligation.
I believe that we can find a way to restore fish and wildlife by taking segments of this river back to a more productive riverine state and that we can find a way to accomplish that without undue economic disruption. We must stop treating the restoration opportunity simply as a cost or as an unwelcome burden. Ultimately, we all have much to gain–economically, socially, culturally and in the interest of regional harmony–if we can restore the fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin.
I have argued repeatedly during this review that the region should not try to take any major or controversial action under this report until a working regional consensus has been attained on fish and power issues. I am not naive enough to expect unanimity, but we are far short of the requisite unity that would permit Bonneville, the Council, the Governors, our Congressional delegation or the Clinton Administration to move ahead.
I urge again that interest groups should be very careful about how they take the next steps. I do not raise this as a matter of holding hostage some portions of the committee's work. My point is that we do not need to start an intraregional war that will substantially weaken our ability to resolve these difficult fish and power issues and will impair the chances that a complete regional package can succeed. Success is not assured and we should not forget that fact.
I am particularly concerned about any moves in Congress or elsewhere to insulate the transmission system from the fish and wildlife or other Bonneville obligations. The private utilities have candidly and openly said they intend to pursue this legislation in Congress. I suspect the drafting has already been done. But even Senator McClure, who supports the full separation of generation and transmission, has warned that this particular piece of legislation should only be pursued if there is regional consensus. There is not a regional consensus on this issue and I hope the private utilities will heed that advice. The key point in dispute is that the utilities believe that fish costs are not an appropriate transmission cost. The fish advocates and tribes believe that transmission contributed to the decline of the salmon and that it must continue, as obligated under current law, to assist in the restoration effort.
The same is true for any further legislative attempts to impose fish and wildlife spending caps and to declare those capped levels of funding sufficient for meeting the power system's legal obligations to fish and wildlife. We all know the sky is not the limit on fish and wildlife restoration funding, but flexible multiyear budgets developed by the federal, state and tribal governments can handle that problem. The scars from the last battle on the funding cap issue have not healed. They should not be reopened as that would only make it more, not less difficult, to resolve fish and power issues.
Nor should we pursue any quick institutional fixes that would, for example, try to put the states in charge of salmon restoration, particularly since the salmon issue raises so many national and international treaty and related issues. We should not put the states in the dominant role, but should instead pull the federal agencies, state governments and tribes together to address the restoration needs without undermining existing fish and wildlife obligations.
And last, we should stop including lost power system revenues in fish and wildlife restoration costs. Doing so simply charges fish for water we took from the Columbia's seasonal flows and have used for power generation–as if power generation was the highest and best use of the river. It is not; and this practice is an exercise in political statistics. It overstates the size of the fish and wildlife investment and we should stop doing that.
We face tough issues in all this, but we should remember that this is not new terrain for the region. We had to make the same kind of accommodations for fish and wildlife–with difficulty and too grudgingly in my view–when the Northwest Power Act was being drafted in the late 1970s. We even needed outside help from Congressman Dingell and others to get it done–and we may have to have it again. I am convinced we can reach a resolution and, while we should not be surprised if our struggle to get there is not easy, we must get this important part of the job done.
I have high regard for the integrity, commitment and work ethic of the chairman and members of the committee who have dedicated a large portion of the past year–as I have–to this committee's work. We accomplished a lot. But much remains to be done and one thing is clear: We will not, and should not, try to write the Northwest chapter of national energy legislation over the determined opposition of fishery advocates, fishery managers and the Northwest's tribes. We should not try to slide through administrative changes and contracts that would disadvantage fish and wildlife restoration either. All this work should be done in the open and in cooperation with the fishery advocates, tribes and the federal government. It is to that task–so difficult for the Steering Committee to contemplate given its charge and makeup–that we must turn.
As I have said before, we will not be remembered for whether we repay the WPPSS debt; for we will surely repay it. Not for whether we have the cheapest power bills in the nation; for I believe we will have affordable power–at least for the well-off among us. Not for whether we are wasting energy; for we will all do more of that than we should, and we know it.
We will be remembered for whether we advance the public purposes of this river system; whether we stop the decline of the salmon runs; whether we reaffirm and act decisively on our past and still unfulfilled commitments to fish and wildlife restoration; whether we start to keep the promises of the treaties with the tribes and Canada, and fulfill the intent of the Endangered Species Act and the Northwest Power Act. In each of these treaties and statutes, and more, we said we would restore the Columbia River fish and wildlife populations so we could enjoy the sustainable benefits that would bring. We need to get on with that job.
I understand the importance of the essential next steps and believe the effort to achieve regional consensus is a very important priority for the region. I will commit even more time and effort to that work. We will all emerge in a stronger position if we successfully link the fish and wildlife obligations with the power system needs and other river uses in the region. We will surely fail if we do not. And the risks of that failure are great for all of us–for the power industry, for other economic users of the river, for the fisheries interests and tribes who depend on the fish and wildlife resources and for all those who are concerned about the basic ecological health of the Columbia River.
I hope we are all prepared to take those next steps and that until these issues are resolved we will not take actions that make progress more difficult. I look forward to working with all of you as that work proceeds.
Because strong fish and wildlife commitments have yet to be made; because the major issues between power, other river uses and fish and wildlife restoration have not been squarely addressed; and, most importantly, because the region is far from consensus on the proper fit between power and fish needs in this report and far short of making the necessary commitments to an effective restoration effort–for all these reasons, I reflect the lack of regional consensus by respectfully dissenting from the recommendations of the steering committee.
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