Wyden Attacks Bush's Plan
by Jeff Kosseff
Seeking to pressure the White House, the Oregon senator
says he may place a hold on an Energy Department nominee
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Ron Wyden threatened to block President Bush's nominee for deputy energy secretary in an effort to pressure the administration to drop proposed changes to the Bonneville Power Administration.
In a speech Thursday on the Senate floor, Wyden, D-Ore., attacked a proposal Bush announced last week in his budget that would require the BPA and the three other power marketing administrations to charge market rates for electricity.
The BPA, which markets nearly half of the Northwest's electricity, charges rates that are based on the costs of the electricity rather than the price it could bring if sold on the open market. Currently, the BPA charges utilities about $31 a megawatt hour, and market rates range from $40 to $50.
The administration's concept, Wyden said, "would be so punitive on our region at a time when we have very high unemployment."
Wyden said the plan would be the first step toward privatizing the BPA, a charge the Energy Department disputed. Wyden said he was concerned about the role that Bush's nominee played in developing the proposal.
Bush has nominated one of his special assistants, Jeffrey Clay Sell, to become the Energy Department's second-in-command. Before joining the White House, he was a high-ranking congressional staffer who worked on energy issues.
"Unless the administration drops their proposal, I will be forced to come back to this floor and have a public hold placed on the Sell nomination," Wyden said.
The Senate must approve presidential nominations. Any senator can place a hold on a nomination, and at least 60 senators must vote to remove the hold. Senators are not required to publicly announce holds, but Wyden has made it a policy to do so.
A White House spokesman, Ken Lisaius, said Bush stands by Sell.
"Obviously, he's been here at the White House and prior to his appointment to the White House has a long experience on energy policy and is a well-qualified candidate for the position," Lisaius said. He said the White House is open to working with Wyden and all other members of Congress "on the important matters that face our nation."
Samuel Bodman, Bush's new energy secretary, assured Wyden he opposed privatizing the BPA at Bodman's Jan. 19 confirmation hearing and in a Jan. 7 meeting at Wyden's office, Wyden said.
At the meeting in Wyden's office, Sell accompanied Bodman, Wyden said. As a White House adviser, Wyden said, Sell "clearly knew the administration was planning this budget bombshell."
Sell could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Bush's budget proposal, released Feb. 7, does not propose privatization of the BPA. It calls for the agency to gradually move toward market electricity rates.
"This administration does not support the privatization of BPA," said Joe Davis, an Energy Department spokesman. "Our proposed idea for a rate increase is not privatization."
Wyden disagreed, saying the proposal would "privatize Bonneville for all practical purposes by going to a different rate structure that seeks to extract money from Bonneville beyond its costs."
In addition to the BPA, the proposal would apply to three other power marketing administrations: Southeastern Power Administration in Elberton, Ga.; Southwestern Power Administration in Tulsa, Okla.; and Western Area Power Administration in Lakewood, Colo.
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