Warren Buffett can undam the Klamath

October 06, 2020

This year, Americans have reckoned with historic inequalities, and urgent demands for change have been raised from coast to coast. The necessary work of fixing systemic racism and economic inequality is difficult and often complicated: we need to address laws and policies at every level of government and industry. It’s a rare situation indeed where one man can make a single decision to reverse years of injustice. But in northwest California, the Klamath dam removal project is that situation, and Warren Buffett is that man.

When Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought the western energy utility PacifiCorp in 2006, it acquired  a century-old hydroelectric project comprising four Klamath River dams, operating under an expired 1954 permit that requires no mitigation for the dams’ harmful impacts to Native American tribes, the environment, or public health.

You might assume these dams provide broad societal benefits like drinking water, irrigation, or significant flood control.  They don’t.  Their main purpose is generating a little bit of power for PacifiCorp,. But for downstream tribes and communities, it is an environmental and social justice atrocity.

The dams’ impacts are borne by downstream communities and those who live along the river, including Native American tribes who have lived and fished on the river since time immemorial. Against a powerful corporate empire, these fragile tribes have no power, literally: parts of the Yurok and Karuk communities have no electricity.

Every year that PacifiCorp squeezes more profit out of this project, the dams squeeze more life out of the Klamath River. The lowermost dam, appropriately named “Iron Gate,” blocks salmon and steelhead migration. Fish crowd below Iron Gate in superheated water carrying a toxic stew of parasites, disease, and algae that is deadly to fish and humans alike. In these conditions, fish don’t stand a chance and toxic algal blooms caused by the dams routinely require agencies to issue health advisories to stop people from coming into contact with the river.

PacifiCorp’s managers know the dams are ruining the river, its fisheries, and the health and culture of native peoples downstream. In 2010, after widespread public outcry, the company struck a deal with several tribes, the states of Oregon and California, and fishing and conservation groups to remove the dams and revive the river.

Under the deal, the settling parties asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to transfer the hydropower license to a dam removal entity they formed called the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. FERC recently approved that request, but with a condition: PacifiCorp, with its experience and resources, should remain as a co-licensee for the project until the dams are out. This technical deviation from the parties’ request was always a widely understood possibility, but PacifiCorp is spinning it as surprise that calls the whole deal into question.

Is PacifiCorp merely trying to protect ratepayers from escalating costs? If so, there’s a ready solution:  California has put $250 million on the table to fund dam removal, and the other parties are eager to negotiate a firewall against unlikely cost overruns for PacifiCorp’s ratepayers.

But the most likely cause of cost overruns is delay – which, ironically, PacifiCorp is causing today with its indecisionabout whether to honor the dam removal deal. By walking away from a multi-state agreement, PacifiCorp’s executives would invite protracted regulatory proceedings and a bottomless pit of litigation, not to mention massive reputational damage. Surely, PacifiCorp isn’t interested in a reputation for greed and indifference to environmental, social, and racial injustice.

Congress will not support these injustices. As part of the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act, we’ve passed an amendment with overwhelming support that will hold PacifiCorp accountable if they renege on the agreement. We’re sending a very clear message to PacifiCorp that we will no longer accept business as usual with their destructive Klamath River dams.

For Warren Buffett, Klamath dam removal is a rare union of economics, good corporate citizenship, and justice. PacifiCorp has the chance to rid itself of a toxic asset and the moral burden of the dams’ impact to tribal people and coastal communities, and the state of California helps pay for it – all while protecting the company’s longstanding reputation. Mr. Buffett said it best himself: “Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”

The dark side of American history is that “progress” and development of the west generally came at the expense of marginalized native peoples.  Most Americans assume that’s a closed chapter of history, but it’s not. PacifiCorp is doing it now, tragically, by making a business decision to continue sickening the Klamath river, destroying its salmon runs and water quality, and devastating the region’s native peoples.

PacifiCorp’s callousness, like its dams, cannot stand. We’re not asking Warren Buffett to write a blank check or jeopardize his business; we’re asking him to honor a deal that protects his business, reputation, and legacy while repairing decades of racial and environmental injustice. We’re asking him to agree to bring the Klamath River back to life.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Arizona) represents Arizona’s 3rd congressional district, and chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources. North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) represents California’s 2nd congressional district.

By:  Rep. Jared Huffman and Rep. Raul Grijalva
Source: Eureka Times-Standard