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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Energy nominee could be boon to region

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

Samuel Bodman will become the new Secretary of Energy Wednesday. Even the Democrats who participated in his nomination hearing last week before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said they will vote for his confirmation.

His position is as important to the Northwest, if the not most important, of all in the Cabinet. For that reason, five of the eight senators from Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon sit on the committee. Several other members, including the committee’s Republican chairman and ranking Democrat, are also from the West.

Among the agencies under the secretary’s jurisdiction are the Bonneville Power Administration, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at Hanford, and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, although independent, also falls under the DOE umbrella.

The department’s Northwest operations directly and indirectly employ thousands. Bonneville sells and/or transmits a substantial share of all the power consumed in the region.

Outgoing Secretary Spencer Abraham, who resigned in November, was largely unknown in the region. Had he been known, he would have been disliked. A former senator from Michigan, Abraham visited the Northwest during the darkest days of the electricity crisis in 2001, and repulsed demands by Western governors that he intervene to cap power prices that were 100 times historic levels. He tried repeatedly to bend the terms of a 1989 agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and State of Washington governing the Hanford cleanup.

Bodman, 66, is also a stranger to these parts.

Chicago born, he attended Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught chemical engineering for five years. In 1970, he joined a little firm called Fidelity Investments. He resigned as president in 1987, having helped build one of the giants of the mutual fund industry. He served as chairman and chief executive officer of Cabot Corp., a $2 billion chemicals company with a tarnished environmental record, until joining the Bush Administration in 2001 as deputy secretary of Commerce. Last February, he moved to the same spot at the Treasury Department.

His appointment was a surprise in Washington. Deputy secretaries rarely move up, let alone move over to a different department and move up. But he obviously impressed outgoing Commerce Secretary Dan Evans, a confidant of the president’s. At Treasury, he was involved with the department’s efforts to cut off the flow of money to terrorists, a task surely appreciated by the White House.

The president praised Bodman’s managerial abilities in announcing the appointment.

“Sam Bodman has shown himself to be a problem solver who knows how to set goals, and he knows how to reach them,” Bush said in his introductory remarks.

But Bodman’s No. 1 qualification may be his wholehearted support for the president’s energy bill, the one crafted in secret by Vice President Cheney and his oil industry cronies. Bad as it was at inception, Congress made it worse by heaping on the subsidies. Only the administration’s insistence the bill include drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge kept it from passing last year. Odds for passage are better this year, particularly if Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Energy Committee chairman, follows through on a comment at the nomination hearing he might sever the drilling provision from the rest of the bill.

That said, Bodman made a few comments at the hearing that will play well in the Northwest.

In response to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Bodman said “I am personally opposed to the privatization of Bonneville, and to my knowledge that is the position of the administration.”

That should set to rest for now the ongoing fear the federal government would sell off its dams and transmission assets in the Northwest to raise cash.

Bodman also seemed to step away from a FERC one-size-fits-all design for restructuring the nation’s transmission system, a design that makes little sense in the Northwest.

“We have a system of delivering electricity that is highly varied,” he told the committee. “We need to develop an approach that takes into account that diversity and stimulates investment in the grid.”

Bodman has distinguished himself as a scientist and a manager. At Commerce, he reportedly doted on that department’s scientific endeavors. He has encouraged the transfer of new technology to industry. He showed genuine curiosity about the many Energy Department research initiatives during his committee testimony.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, an Energy Committee member, met privately with Bodman earlier this month. She says the scientist in him seemed enthused about the potential for improving transmission grid efficiency as a way of delivering more electricity. That background may also speed him up the learning curve on Hanford issues, she says.

“My sense is he will be more helpful to the Northwest in terms of technology,” Cantwell says, who cautioned that Bodman’s ability to respond to the region’s concerns may be constrained by possible cuts in the Energy Department’s budget.

Bodman has a background that could make him an asset to the Northwest, if we can hold his attention. Each senator at the hearing was keen he devote time to their issues. The politician in Abraham was never sympathetic to the Northwest. Perhaps the scientist in Bodman will be.

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