Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Electric utilities bamboozle lawmakers with scare tactics

A largely Republican claque of Idaho legislators has been convinced to become mouthpieces for coal-burning electric generating plant operators and their poor-mouth spiels to avoid regulation.

Creating a state board to review and approve siting of new generating plants would simply delay opening plants and add costs, grumbled the Legislature's interim energy committee last week.

Idaho has no compunction about layers of license and regulatory functions for other commercial enterprises doing business here.

Two new generating plant operators hoping to site plants in Power and Jerome counties make tissue-thin arguments that they're "merchant" plants. That is, they sell power to other utilities for resale, not directly to consumers, and are thus not genuine electric utilities subject to the ordinary siting rules and regulations of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

The state Senate's Democratic minority leader, Sen. Clint Stennett, wisely, and against obvious odds, championed a new state group to provide public protection on such operations.

Without such a group, Stennett argues, out-of-state corporations will shop around for rural sites, romance local politicians with eye-popping promises of new economic prosperity, and walk away with few limits on how they may impact the area of operations as well as adjoining counties.

As for alleged costs and delays, this is the customary whine of businesses hoping to avoid public accountability. Detroit moaned in the 1970s that it couldn't improve fuel mileage of autos. Canned food suppliers whined business would suffer if nutrition values were required on labels.

Furthermore, California, Oregon, Montana and Arizona and Washington have such successful siting groups.

The two coal-burning plants are not philanthropies. They're hard-nosed, profit-making enterprises whose operators want every advantage to avoid regulation and to improve profits.

Those are not the public's prime interests. The public wants and deserves regulatory assurances that their air, water and surroundings are protected from industrial habits that have a long history of public-be-damned indifference.

Idahoans are all too familiar with how electric utilities have hornswoggled politicians into approving hydroelectric dams that've chewed the salmon species into near-extinction.

If this new industry of "electric merchants" escapes state responsibility for proper siting, it will mark a new low in just how far politicians can be seduced by industry to avoid government oversight.

In which case, barbers and hair stylists would then be more rigorously regulated and inspected by the state than the two "electricity merchants" that want to be treated as privileged and above the public interest.

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