Great shakeup may be ahead for electric rates in Northwest

The moment of truth is fast approaching for a major energy bill that would cut residential users in on the cheap electricity rates in the Pacific Northwest.

The bill has been described as the most important piece of legislation affecting the Northwest since the Bonneville Project Act of 1937. That act set up the network of federal hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River and gave residents here the cheapest electricity in the United States.

The latest bill, called the Pacific Northwest Electrical Power Planning and Conservation Act, would set up a new system of distributing electric power throughout the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

The measure easily passed the US Senate under the leadership of Washington state's powerful Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D), chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

It now is wending its way through the House of Representatives; there it faces more opposition, since the Northwest delegation in the House is far from united in support of the bill.

The Northwest energy bill attempts to accomplish three fundamental things:

* To dramatically change the electrical rates in the region by giving residential and farm customers of private utilities a share in the cheap power from federal dams. At the same time, it would boost the rates charged to industrial users like aluminum companies.

* To make the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), headquartered here in Portland, Ore., the chief agency in planning for future energy needs with help of a regional council made up of representatives from the four states.

* To set forth certain priorities for new energy generation, giving first priority to conservation and renewable resources and last priority to construction of new thermal and nuclear power plants.

Even so, many environmentalists in the Northwest oppose the bill because they believe it will make it easier to construct new nuclear plants.

The new power legislation was prompted by the growing disparity of electric rates in the Northwest between customers of private and public utilities.

The region's important aluminum industry also faces loss of access to electric power. The industry currently uses about a quarter of all the electricity produced by hydroelectric power plants.

Since the bill was introduced in the House, there have been several important amendments to satisfy interest groups in the Northwest and powerful committee chairmen.

The original legislation called for a planning council made up of one representative appointed by each of the four state governors and the BPA administrator.

But since it is unconstitutional for state officials to run a federal agency, it would, in effect, have left the council entirely in the hands of the BPA, critics argued.

A compromise worked out by Rep. Al Swift (D) of Washington expands the council to 11 members nominated by the governors but appointed by the US Secretary of Energy.

Congressman Swift also inserted an amendment to help preserve fish in the Columbia River, a provision demanded by Rep. John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee.

It would provide a guarantee of sufficient river flows to begin restoring the salmon population in the upper Columbia, which has been seriously depleted in recent years.

Many dam-owning utilities are reluctant to "waste" power-generating water to protect fish trying to migrate downstream to the ocean, if it means curtailing power production.

The bill now advances to the House Interior Committee where its most vocal regional critic, Rep. James Weaver (D) of Oregon, is the ranking member.

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