Canada defends hydropower 'entitlement' from U.S. Northwest

Jul 4, 2013

Here's a little-known fact that may affect your power bill.

Every year, public utilities in the Northwest give British Columbia several hundred million dollars worth of electricity. That's to compensate Canada for managing the upper Columbia River to minimize flooding and maximize hydropower downstream.

Americans are pushing for a better deal. But the B.C. government is preparing to defend what is now considered an entitlement.

This all has to do with an obscure but important cross-border agreement called the Columbia River Treaty. When that treaty turns 50 years old next year, it can be renegotiated.

Public utilities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana argue we're paying far more to Canada under the current terms than we receive back in benefits. A working draft of a regional recommendation to the U.S. State Department diplomatically calls to "rebalance... the power benefits between the two counties."

In Victoria, political columnist Vaughn Palmer says the Province of B.C. is marshalling its arguments, too.

"We'd like to keep the cash flow going. There's a lot to talk about here. It's early to say how this one is going to come out,” Palmer said.

B.C. leaders argue the value of continuing the treaty is "much higher" than what the Bonneville Power Administration calculated. 

"It is our view that the benefits of coordination to the U.S. are worth more than the Canadian entitlement, and we believe that termination of the treaty would create unacceptable risks for the U.S. in regards to flood control and other interests," said Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett in a statement emailed to public radio Thursday. 

A new position paper from Bennett's ministry goes on to say that B.C. Hydro would operate differently without the treaty and that would make electricity production less reliable on the U.S. side.