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The Oregonian: Commentary

Protect ratepayers first


Three years ago, the energy crisis began to materialize in California. It was a convergence of drought, market manipulation and a mishmash of crackpot regulation that would send the Northwest barreling headlong into recession.

Now, some Oregon lawmakers are poised to put Oregon ratepayers in similar danger, leaving them unprotected from the New York bankers who helped Enron cheat on its books.

House Bill 2356 would strip Portland of its municipal authority to condemn an electric utility for the purposes of providing electric service to the public.

Supported by those with the most to lose, namely bankrupt Enron and the officers of Portland General Electric, HB 2356 would eliminate the one slim piece of leverage local government holds: the power of eminent domain.

This is a dangerously bad bill. It should be flatly rejected.

Introduced early in the session, HB 2356 was narrowly written to thwart Portland's bid for PGE. Since then, a lot has happened.

Last month, Enron rebuffed the city in its bid to buy PGE but offered no clear resolution for the utility. Enron said it may sell the company, or it may offer PGE stock to Enron's creditors.

While the company would still be regulated by the Oregon Public Utility Commission, the PUC's authority may not be enough to protect ratepayers from some remedies Enron creditors and litigants may pursue. California found that out the hard way when the California PUC tried to keep Pacific Gas and Electric from being sold off in pieces. It could cost California ratepayers as much as $5 billion to prevent that scenario.

A breakup of PGE would be bad news for Oregonians. The sale of generating plants by California utilities figured prominently in the energy crisis.

As long as there is a possibility that Portland and Enron might reopen their talks on a purchase, we don't see any benefit in loose talk about condemnation. But it certainly shouldn't be taken out of the city's legal toolbox.

Condemnation may be ratepayers' only ace. The Legislature shouldn't deal it away.