In Our View: DOE Should Tread Lightly

Scrutiny of BPA justified but no excuse for more intrusive federal oversight

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Officials of the Bonneville Power Administration and Congressional representatives from the Northwest have a message for the U.S. Department of Energy: "Move along … move right along … there's nothing to see here … we're doing just fine." Whether federal regulators heed such a message remains to be seen, and their actions potentially could have an enormous impact upon citizens throughout the region.

The BPA is under scrutiny from the Department of Energy in the wake of a hiring scandal at the administration. A report from the department's inspector general earlier this month lambasted the BPA for "widespread and pervasive" discrimination against veterans when it comes to hiring, in addition to retaliation against whistle-blowers who exposed the practices. That has led to a closer watch on the BPA from its federal overlord, with the DOE moving to more tightly control the personnel and legal functions of the regional power administration, which long has been afforded a large measure of autonomy.

Because the BPA is a federal agency under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Energy, officials certainly have a right to take measures to ensure that federal laws and policies are being followed. The Department of Energy should, however, answer questions about why two top BPA officials who were suspended during the summer because of the hiring scandal have been offered other DOE positions in Washington, D.C. That seems to be a case of business as usual for the federal government, and it's a style of business that should be altered.

In the meantime, while the BPA has earned increased scrutiny regarding hiring, we hope that such scrutiny does not extend to more intrusive oversight. The Bonneville Power Administration was formed in the 1930s and since then has provided the Northwest with abundant, low-cost hydro-electric power that is the envy of much of the nation. The BPA currently runs 31 dams in the Columbia River Basin, delivering electricity to more than 140 utility companies in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. The agency generates enough revenue from the sale of electricity to be self-sustaining, a fact that long has led policymakers from other parts of the country to complain that the BPA is unfairly subsidized and that its customers should pay market rates for electricity.

We would argue that not all marketplaces are created equal, and trying to make them equal leads to inefficiencies that harm all consumers. For example, gasoline prices in the Northwest tend to be among the highest in the nation, and different regions pay different prices for, say, vegetables or heating oil or natural gas. Saying that Northwest residents should pay market prices for hydro-electric power is akin to saying we should pay as much for apples as somebody in Wyoming.

All of this has led to much worry about increased federal involvement in the Bonneville Power Administration. "This cannot be used as a Trojan horse to take Bonneville out of our region, to take over its independence," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee. "No one can use the problems at BPA as an excuse to interfere with policy decisions made in the Northwest for the residents of the Northwest."

Let's hope not. While there is no excuse for discriminatory hiring practices, the federal government should not use that as reasoning for actions that would harm residents and businesses throughout the Northwest in the form of higher electricity costs.