The debate over lower Snake River dam removal is often framed as a tug-of-war between the perceived environmental benefits to salmon, steelhead and other aquatic life and the economic detriments to farmers, hydroelectric generation, a barging industry and the communities they support.
But some, including Northwest RiverPartners Executive Director Kurt Miller, say it is time to bring social justice into the discussion.
Miller, who took over as head of the hydroelectric advocacy group about nine months ago, recently spoke to the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs, where he outlined his concerns about disproportionate impacts of dam removal on North Central Washington's farmworkers—many of whom are Latino—and on low-income residents, who he said disproportionately would see higher rates and suffer greater consequences in an energy crisis.
"We talk about this report or that report, this study or that study, but we often forget that there are real people whose lives are going to be greatly affected by the outcome of the dam debate," Miller told NW Fishletter.
Sean O'Leary, spokesman for the NW Energy Coalition, which supports removing the dams, disputes Miller's concerns, countering, "Even the most fervent dam-removal advocates are saying those affected need to be made whole."
He said many new economic opportunities would arise if the dams are removed. Those include job opportunities associated with the removal process, infrastructure changes to deal with transportation and irrigation changes, the build-out of new renewable resources, and jobs surrounding river restoration. The coalition believes the economic benefits would stretch farther up-river into Idaho, and downriver to the ocean, where whales and fishermen would also benefit.
The coalition is demonstrating that local economies can remain strong and workers offered new job opportunities when coal mines and power plants are shut down in places like Centralia, Wash., and Colstrip, Mont., he said.
Miller said he sees three ways low-income Washingtonians and minorities would be affected far more than others if the dams are breached.
First, he said, the associated irrigation that supports more than 90,000 acres of farmland also supports a large and underrepresented Latino population. "In the Tri-Cities, a lot of these agriculture-based communities are very diverse, and they have a very large Latino population," up to one-third of the population in some communities, he said.
"Second, the dams are genuinely and literally necessary for us as we try to avoid a second energy crisis," he said.
Miller said as energy experts raise alarms about potential near-term capacity shortages in the Northwest, he's concerned that forced power outages that have recently affected millions of California residents could happen in the Northwest. And, as in California, he said, it would create a two-tiered system—the energy haves and the energy have-nots.
"The only ones who can move through that seamlessly are people who can put solar panels on their rooftops and smart inverters, and battery backups," he said. "Or people wealthy enough to have their own generators."
Others—especially those with the fewest resources—have to weather the outage. If the Northwest experiences such outages, he said, "It's going to really hit vulnerable communities and communities of color harder than others."
Finally, Miller said, it would cost money to replace power the dams generate, and that cost would largely be borne by lower-income residents. "It's not just the Tri-Cities, but overall, communities that are served by public power across the Northwest are basically the communities with lower income, and a lot are also communities of color," he said.
Miller said studies showing dam replacement would cost only a few dollars a month per customer underestimate the costs, he believes, and assume costs would be spread across all power customers. "But the costs would be borne only by the ones who get their power from BPA," he said.
Miller said a draft environmental impact statement on Columbia River System Operations due out in February will provide the Bonneville Power Administration and other action agencies a better estimate of cost to BPA customers for dam removal.
Those costs were estimated at $1.28 per month per household in a study commissioned by NWEC, under a scenario where the power is replaced by a combination of wind, solar, energy efficiency and demand response.
Conducted by independent consultants Energy Strategies, the April 2018 study concluded that, under its preferred scenario, the new energy sources would still provide reliable power to the Northwest with only small increases in ratepayer costs and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions of 1 percent. Costs rise to $1.38 per month per customer under a scenario where greenhouse gases are reduced.
O'Leary, the Coalition's spokesman, said the study included all ratepayers in its cost analysis because that's how the Northwest Power and Conservation Council reports rate increases. He said while BPA ratepayers would be impacted more than others, much of the cost of replacement power—estimated at $464 million a year—would be borne not just by public-power customers but also whoever purchases power from private entities that develop them. At least some of the costs, he said, would likely be spread across the region.
O'Leary disputed Miller's contention that removing the dams would have a disproportionate impact on Latino farmworkers or low-income residents.
"I think it is simply inaccurate to say there would be serious repercussions for agriculture," he said. "Even the most fervent dam-removal advocates—everybody—is committed to ensuring that those affected need to be made whole."
Under any transition, "[c]ertainly there are winners and losers," O'Leary said. "But on a net basis, things can be made better than before." He added, "Most of those opportunities have positive implications for communities of color and low-income residents,"
O'Leary pointed to what promises to be a successful transition in Centralia, Wash., where a local coal mine closed and a coal-fired power plant will shut down by 2025. The change will be aided by a negotiated agreement between the power plant's owner TransAlta, and Washington state, the NW Energy Coalition and others.
And while the plant hasn't yet closed, the community once known for its coal production will continue to be an energy hub as TransAlta develops the state's largest solar project. He said his organization and others are working toward similar solutions in Colstrip, Mont.
O'Leary also disputed that the region could face blackouts without power from the dams, pointing to the coalition's study finding that their power could be replaced by clean, reliable sources. He said the notion that the region could face blackouts is not plausible, and concluded, "The social equity issues are largely based on fantasy."
But Miller said it's the coalition's study—based on old data—that is out of touch with reality. He said although the study was thorough, it was based on resource assumptions from 2016, and so much has changed since then—including Washington's adoption of the Clean Energy Transformation Act and the number of coal plants set for retirement in the next decade.
"A quick check of the most recent numbers from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council reveals that Northwest utilities will retire 6,700 megawatts of coal plants during the period 2020-2030. The [Coalition] study only assumed 2,800 megawatts of Northwest coal retirements. This significant gap totally changes the regional supply picture," he wrote in a follow-up email to NW Fishletter.
He also noted that 400 utility leaders and policymakers came to a Northwest Power Pool-sponsored resource adequacy symposium in October. "There is genuine concern about another energy crisis," he added.
Miller pointed to the Power Pool's October report, which says the region may begin to experience capacity shortages as soon as next year, and that by the mid-2020s, the region may face a capacity deficit of thousands of megawatts.
While the social justice issue is not new, Miller said, those who would be most affected by dam removal seem to have been forgotten as the federal action agencies prepare to release a draft EIS examining impacts of dam removal, expected in February.
"The truth is that the best solution for those communities is to leave the dams in place," he said.