Aerial view of Columbia River and the Bonneville Dam. Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Aerial view of Columbia River and the Bonneville Dam. Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Trump’s Bonneville Power Administration selloff is in doubt

A group in Congress says it will fight any attempt to privatize the Northwest’s hydroelectric system.

EVERETT — The U.S. Department of Energy has signaled it could drop plans to sell off major parts of the Pacific Northwest’s hydroelectric system, a scenario that utilities and customers feared would push rates higher.

A bipartisan group in Congress has made it clear that it intends to stop any attempt to privatize the Bonneville Power Administration, an idea that President Donald Trump has floated in yearly budget proposals. The Snohomish County Public Utility District buys about 80 percent of its electricity from the BPA, which was created by the federal government in the 1930s.

“I have made it clear to the Trump Administration that it would be a huge mistake to sell off or privatize portions of the BPA,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said Thursday, in a statement. “The notion that we would go along with the administration’s proposal to enrich investors at the expense of families and businesses in our state is a complete non-starter.”

Washington’s other U.S. senator, Maria Cantwell, called access to cheap hydropower “the backbone of our economy for decades” and said selling the transmission infrastructure would be “a bad idea.”

On Thursday, a Senate committee approved an energy and water bill that would deny any money for divesting the federal government of Bonneville Power assets. It also applies to the three other power marketing administrations around the country. It passed 30-1 and is headed to the full Senate for a vote.

Unloading the Pacific Northwest’s major power purveyor is one of thousands of ideas in the annual budget the Trump administration released in February. The president and his allies have made a general push to privatize public infrastructure in a belief that free markets would perform more efficiently.

Washington’s congressional delegation, however, is united in disagreement. The Public Power Council, an industry group for Pacific Northwest utilities including the Snohomish County PUD, also strongly opposed the privatization push.

Washington’s four Republicans in Congress — U.S. Reps. Dave Reichert, Jaime Herrera Beutler, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse — issued a joint statement Thursday that praised U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry for a change of heart.

“On behalf of the 12 million residents and businesses in the Pacific Northwest who rely on the clean, affordable hydropower generated from BPA, we applaud the administration for responding to our concerns over the potential sale of BPA’s transmission assets and making the formal decision to abandon such plans,” the release said.

The staffs of Murray and Cantwell reported being unaware of any such announcement from Perry.

A spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, who represents the Fifth Congressional District in Eastern Washington, said the secretary notified her office by phone earlier this week. Perry made a similar pledge when visiting eastern Oregon in April.

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This story first ran in the Everett Herald. Reach Noah Haglund at 425-339-3465 and nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Follow him on Twitter at @NWhaglund.