Friday, July 28, 2017
Selling public assets for private profit
This has long been a keystone of Republican policy, letting tax dollars create great works of value then sell them to a small group of their already wealthy friends to make them even more huge profits. Just as long as they kick back a fair share to the Republicans who made this possible. The latest targets are the assets of the Bonneville Power Administration.
Nearly half of the nation’s hydropower electricity comes from more than 250 hydropower dams that were built on the Columbia and its tributaries — a vast and complex arc of industry and technology that touches tens of millions of lives across the West every day.With the power being sold at cost, there are huge profits to be made by selling some, if not all assets to people who know how to wring every last penny out of their assets. And since no one lives forever, you know their profit pictures will all be short term.
Google taps the river’s energy to power a data center 90 minutes east of Portland, Ore. — drawn there by some of the cheapest, most environmentally friendly electricity in the nation. Farmers farther upriver in Washington State pump irrigation water into alfalfa fields — with both the water and the electricity supplied by a dam. The Space Needle in Seattle uses Columbia River electricity to slowly spin tourists in its sky-view restaurant. High-voltage transmission lines shoot south to California.
Now, the Trump administration has proposed rethinking the entire system, with a plan to sell the transmission network of wires and substations owned by the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency that distributes most of the Columbia basin’s output, to private buyers.
The idea is part of a package of proposals that would transform much of the infrastructure in the United States to a mixture of public and private partnerships, lowering costs to taxpayers and improving efficiency, administration officials said. Assets of two other big public power operators, based in Colorado and Oklahoma, would be sold, too, if Congress approves the measure.
Debates about government and its role in land and environmental policy are always highly charged. But perhaps nowhere could the proposed changes have a more significant impact than along the great river of the West — fourth largest by volume in North America, more than 10 times that of the Hudson. Privatization would transform a government service that requires equal standards across a vast territory — from large cities to tiny hamlets — into a private operation seeking maximum returns to investors.
Wringing profits from a system that has provided electricity at cost would inevitably raise prices, critics of the idea said, while supporters envision a streamlined grid open to innovations that government managers cannot imagine.
Those stakes start with the scale. Grand Coulee alone, the biggest dam on the river, ships power to 10 states and creates enough electricity to power all the households in Missouri for a year. The 12 million cubic yards of concrete it contains is enough to build a highway from Seattle to Miami.
The possible fate of that system is raising alarms for some, and questions for almost everyone whose life connects to the river.
“The uncertainty is the biggest thing of all: How would it work?” Terry Oxley, the captain of the tugboat, the Crown Point, said as he gazed out over the water, hands flicking the controls with practiced aplomb. Mr. Oxley, 63, has worked the tugs for 39 years.
“I guess I want more input,” he added. “Who’s going to control it? Who’s going to have the say so? When are they going to release the water, the flood control, the spill patterns for the fish? It’s such a big deal, and it’s all intertwined.”
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