Sara Patton is director of the NW Energy Coalition based in Seattle, Wash.

Sunday, 6 Jun 1999

SEATTLE, Wash.

I am home from several days in Portland, Ore., attempting to type through the ministrations of my small white cat who apparently missed me while I was gone. On Friday I was on a panel in a seminar titled “Hydroelectricity in Today’s Competitive Western Marketplace.” It was a continuing legal education seminar, but the attendance was heavily weighted toward electric utility folks, power marketers, the Bonneville Power Administration, trade press, and other hydroelectricity enthusiasts.

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My panel was entitled “To Breach or Not to Breach.” The subject was the four lower Snake River dams. The NW Energy Coalition has endorsed partial removal of these four dams and replacement of the energy produced by them with energy conservation and clean renewables. The Coalition is not alone in this radical position for the Northwest: hundreds of environmental, sports fishing, commercial fishing, consumer protection, and other groups have already endorsed taking out the dams. In March the Emerald People’s Utility District became the first electric utility to endorse removal. 206 scientists have taken the remarkable step of writing a joint letter to President Clinton to say that barging baby salmon around the dams will not stop extinction and taking the dams out will. The Columbia & Snake Rivers Campaign is organizing the regional and national effort.

It was clear that I was on the breach side of the panel. Rob Lothrop, a well-respected advocate from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, was my ally. We faced Jack Robertson, deputy administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, and John Saven, director of NW Irrigating Utilities.

I knew the audience was not at all likely to be persuaded even by the formidable facts, inexorable analysis, and penetrating political insight which Rob and I had to offer. The idea that four large federally built and operated dams — which provide 1136 megawatts of electricity (the city of Seattle uses about 1100 a year) and make Lewiston, Idaho, into a seaport in the Rocky Mountains — will be rendered impotent simply to save salmon is inconceivable to most hydroelectric utility folks. It is much worse than that to irrigation interests, aluminum smelters, and bargers: it is an assault on their way of life and on their cushy spot at the federal subsidy trough. That’s not what I said to them, though, at least not in so many words.

I led off the panel with the usual invocation of the breadth and diversity of the nearly 90 organizational members of the Energy Coalition (environmental, consumer, civic, and low-income groups; energy efficiency businesses; renewables developers; and progressive electric and gas utilities). Then I explained that, as a woman, I fit the stereotype which prefers more neutral terms like “bypass” and “removal” to the term “breach” because of the negative connotation of breach birth.

But, I noted, my background also includes a bachelor’s degree in English lit from a Portland institution, Reed College. So my uneasiness with “breach” was overcome by the literary allusion to Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on suicide. I was inspired to reimagine the soliloquy from the salmon’s point of view and to come to a more positive conclusion than the melancholy Dane (who after all did opine that there was something fishy in Denmark). Then I read them the following with apologies to William Shakespeare:

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To breach or not to breach, that is the question:
Whether tis nobler in the gill to suffer
The turbines and spillways of outrageous hydro,
Or to take fins against a river of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to spawn
No more, and behind these dams to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That fish is heir to? Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be squished!

Let conscience make brave stewards of us all
And let the native hue of resolution
Be wed to the E.I.S. of thought
And breach these dams with great pith and moment!
Allow the stream its current to recover
And save the chinook and the steelhead of the Snake.

There was chuckling during the soliloquy, which I expected, but imagine my surprise when they broke into applause at the conclusion! I do not flatter myself that the Anti-Salmoncide Soliloquy changed many minds in that audience. I hope it opened them up to the synopsis of science, economics, cultural impact, clean energy potential, and politics which Rob and I presented for the breach side of the proposition. The salmon need all the help we can get for them.

Monday, 7 Jun 1999

SEATTLE, Wash.

The major events of the day — besides shoveling through email, voicemail, snail mail, and faxes that accumulated over two days’ absence from the office — were lunch with three charming women and the news that the Bonneville Power Administration has once again offered the aluminum industry almost everything it wants and the devil take the hindmost.

Yalonda Sind&eacute, Cheryl Crawford, and Sara Patton

We met Yalonda Sindé at the café. Yalonda is the executive director of the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice. I have been very impressed with CCEJ and Yalonda, and suggested that Cheryl would be a great adviser/volunteer for the Coalition.

Last fall CCEJ successfully urged the Veterans’ Administration Hospital to shut down a medical incinerator. CCEJ is still working to determine the impact of the incinerator’s emissions on the low income community in its wake. We talked about CCEJ’s current campaign to reduce the air and noise pollution from Long Painting Company, which sits back-to-back with residences in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood.

Yalonda observed of the environmental community, “Everyone’s in a tizzy over salmon, but almost nobody cares about air pollution and rising asthma rates.” I freely admitted to being in a tizzy over salmon, and steered the conversation to the Centralia Coal Plant and Mine about 70 miles south of Seattle. Yalonda was interested in the NW Energy Coalition’s effort to convince the recent buyers of the mine and plant to convert it from coal to combined cycle combustion turbines fired by natural gas. But she immediately seized on one of the major obstacles: loss of high-wage jobs if the mine closes down. As she noted, “CCEJ is about economic justice, too.” Still it’s the dirtiest coal plant west of the Mississippi, and its emissions are responsible for asthma hospitalizations and additional deaths in the same neighborhoods where the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice is working. I agreed to get her more information on the human health impacts. Cheryl and Yalonda exchanged cards. I hope this lunch will spark more lunches, joint projects, mutual support.

Back at the office, the bad news about the aluminum deal hadn’t gotten any better. When the aluminum industry was buying all its power from the Bonneville Power Administration back in 1995, it sopped up one-third of BPA’s electricity, which amounts to one-sixth of the electricity in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana. The ore comes in from abroad, lots of cheap juice transforms it into ingots, and out it goes. There are only two rolling mills in the region. We dedicate one-third of the lowest cost electricity in the country to support just 8,000 jobs.

In 1995, the aluminum industry announced that BPA’s rates were above market and
BPA better give them lower rates as well as access to the federal transmission lines to buy power elsewhere and immunize them from debt from failed nuclear power plants or else they’d go to the market and quit buying from BPA altogether. At the time I thought, “Don’t let the door hit your fanny on the way out.” Aluminum has been the strongest voice for letting hydroelectric dams push salmon to extinction, slashing BPA investment in energy conservation and new renewables, and forgetting the residential customers of investor-owned utilities.

But BPA decided it couldn’t afford to lose such important customers and proposed to give them everything they asked for. Then-Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary tried to reverse the decision, but she was visited by a delegation of all the Northwest senators (except Democrat Patty Murray of Washington), who made it clear that no such failure of appropriate deference to the Aluminati would be tolerated. Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was particularly adamant. A Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial the next day compared it to the Saturday night massacre during Watergate.

This fall, new BPA Administrator Judith Johansen took aluminum at its word that it wanted to play the open market and proposed a much smaller power allocation. Analysts were beginning to predict BPA’s prices would soon be below market and stay that way for the foreseeable future. Suddenly the competitive market didn’t look so rosy and the aluminum industry wanted back in. Johansen held out for nearly nine months, but rumor has it there’s pressure from Washington. The deal gives aluminum 1500 megawatts at rates of 2.35 cents a kilowatt-hour versus an average expected market rate of 2.88 cents. That’s about $70 million a year in below-market subsidy for an industry which until very recently wanted to play the market desperately.

Not only that, but the rate is pegged to the world price of aluminum so that if the industry can’t get what it expects for its product, its electric rates go down. BPA says that it will not raise other customers’ rates to pay for this very generous offer to accept the risk of world aluminum prices. BPA will pay for this deal out of “cost reductions.” That almost always translates into cuts for salmon, conservation, renewables, and small customers. In 1995, BPA killed its world class conservation programs and asked for a cap on fish and wildlife expenditures as well as immunity from the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and several other bothersome environmental laws. We will hear on Friday whether the Aluminati will deign to accept this deal. In the meantime, there is much howling and gnashing of the teeth from environmental and consumer groups, as well as utilities and utility commissions.

Tuesday, 8 Jun 1999

SEATTLE, Wash.

The hydroelectricity seminar I attended last week in Portland, Ore., which I wrote about on Sunday, gave me the chance to visit my nieces Tara, Heidi, and Kenna Patton and my nephews Connor and Andy Patton. Like most activists, I cite my younger relatives as motivation for my activism even though the truth is I got started in 6th grade when I led my class in a strike over privacy issues in our desks. I want a clean and affordable energy future and a just society for my nieces and nephews and stepsons, but I wanted all that before they were born, too.

Sara Patton and nieces and nephews

On Thursday at the hydroelectricity seminar, there was a panel on relicensing of hydroelectric dams with utilities that have recently gone through or are going through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process. The panelists were a study in contrasts. Representatives of Chelan County Public Utility District, Seattle City Light, and Avista Utilities described relicensings from heaven. All three utilities made extraordinary efforts to bring all the stakeholders into the process early on. And all three had positive experiences with FERC and could cite significant improvements in fish, wildlife, recreational opportunities, and more from the changes they made under new licenses.

Then there was the representative from Tacoma City Light. He titled his talk, “The Relicensing from Hell …” He said that the license FERC eventually issued would lose $2.5 million a year for Tacoma. Tacoma spent $10 million and 24 years in pursuit of the new license. The speaker claimed that Tacoma had many strengths going into the process including the “facts and truth (historical, scientific, and law),” “excellent record of stewardship,” and commitment to the “entire economic benefit of Cushman [Dam] to the environment.” Suffice it to say that intervenors in the relicensing process had quite different points of view.

What went wrong? The spokesperson explained that Tacoma is a “blue-collar, lunch-bucket, industrial-based city targeted by upscale enviros to the north,” that “taxpayer-funded advisors to Tribes created outlandish expectations and self-serving demands and delays,” that “the administration found elements in Cushman which fit their ‘dam-busting’ agenda,” and finally that “groups became dependent on negative Cushman propaganda to solicit membership, raise funds, appease constituents, garner favor and votes, etc.”

As one of those “upscale enviros to the north,” I laughed as I remembered the cut in pay I took to leave a utility conservation job to work for the NW Energy Coalition (NO regrets!). What was obvious from the contrast among the utilities was that an open, cooperative attitude is worth its weight in gold. One of my colleagues was incensed by the inaccuracies in the Tacoma presentation and wanted to challenge them in the Q&A. I argued that, as a distinct minority, we should ask questions that showcase utility contributions to the environment rather than focusing on slander. My colleague reluctantly agreed (it’s more fun to battle outrageous calumnies than to cheer incremental improvements). I served up two big softballs for the Chelan and Seattle representatives, and they hit them out of the park with great news on salmon and mutual understanding. On the other hand, here I am venting in this diary … having my crabcake and eating it, too.

Wednesday, 9 Jun 1999

SEATTLE, Wash.

I am passionate about coalitions. I believe that the only way to bring about lasting social change is through strong, diverse alliances. Those of us who work for salmon, for wilderness, for justice, for clean water and air, for mercy, for freedom and for equity instead of for the bottom line need passion to keep us going. We need as many voices as we can get because we will never have the money to buy our goals. We need friends, allies, colleagues, and coalitions.

But sometimes our passions isolate us. In coalitions, one of the trickiest questions is how to honor and use the passion of members who have a burning single issue without alienating and marginalizing the middle. And vice versa. Last year when I stood for a seat on the national board of the Sierra Club (unsuccessfully), I found myself in a swirl of burning issues from the immigration initiative to alliances with hunting groups to what I called the pitons-in-the-Tetons question. I responded to phone calls and emails on a vast range of subjects. People who take the time first to be Club members and second to ask Board of Directors’ candidates questions are frequently passionate about their particular concerns. I tried to keep this in mind when some questions strained my credulity or patience.

The question which inspired the following correspondence was, “Do you eat animals (vertebrate or invertebrate)?” I vented to the asker, Swordfish (not his real name), “Invertebrates are eating me as we speak! Is it w
rong to return the favor?” Swordfish is not an activist but he is a deep thinker and one of the drollest of humans. A few days after he let me vent, I received an email message from his address signed simply, “Enraged.” What came to be known as The Enraged Correspondence follows.

Sara:

My wife Zoltan and myself think all Sierra Club members should wear their underwear on the outside of their clothing.

Signed,
Enraged
P.S. We hope you share our feelings on this issue

When I did not respond immediately, the following message arrived with a subject line that read, “I feel like such a fool.”

Sara:

When I contacted you yesterday about our campaign to force people to wear their underwear on the outside, I was, of course, referring only to panties and briefs. Only a madman would make the same demand for upper-body underclothing. This correction should make it clear that we have a true and noble cause, and are not just a collection of nuts and weirdoes wasting your time.

Signed,
Enraged

At this point, I thought Enraged deserved a well-reasoned response from a responsible (if a little mealy-mouthed) candidate like myself. And so I wrote:

Dear Enraged & Zoltan:

While I don’t have enough information on exo-underwear to take a definitive position at this time, I am taking your concerns into consideration. It is important in any large, grassroots organization with the democratic traditions of the Club to listen carefully to all of the voices within the turf, as it were. I was heartened by your own clear understanding of the marginality of the upper-body question. Even so, we cannot dismiss the passion and commitment of the upper-body exo-unders without taking the time to honor their brave attempt to bring the issue to the consciousness of the advocacy community.

If you can take the time to educate me a little further, would you please explain the relationship of the lower exo-unders proposals to the issues of global cotton vs. nylon and the immigration of pouty-faced Calvin Klein pre-adolescents to third-world countries?

Yours for greener drawers!
Sara

Email being what it is, I sent this nascent correspondence off to another friend, Monkfish (not his real name), who was intrigued by the questions Enraged/Swordfish had raised. Monkfish wrote me:

Well Sara,

You’ve really bitten off a mouthful of petrified jerky with this Sierra Club nomination. And if the sample you sent me is in any way representative, the members set the bar high indeed for those who would speak for them. As deftly as you minced and capered through the policy minefield the underwearians laid down, one was left with the impression that you might not be taking the whole issue quite seriously enough.

While I appreciated your effort to be inclusive and give credit where credit is clearly due (as in the case of the upper over-underwearians), you neglect other, perhaps more influential, constituencies: the ex-patriot Australian homosexual faction known as the “Former-Down-Under-Upper-Undie-Over-and-Outs,” to name but one. But silly me! Of course, to acknowledge such revanchists only encourages them. Ah, it’s a subtle hand you play. My hat is off to the master tactician!

Yours,
Monkfish

Meanwhile Enraged was unaccountably encouraged by my candidately response and wrote:

Sara,

The upper exo-unders, as you call them, are known to us by their real name, “The Skins.” I spit as I type their hated name and I will not type it again as they are scum and the offal beneath our feet. Zoltan, myself, and another member of the chosen, a Postal employee named Larry, gather to beat our spears against our shields in recognition of our triumph over the hated %$#@s by gaining your full support for our glorious cause to hit, pinch, sock, burn, slice, poke, gouge, smash, squish, quisan art [sic], and generally smite the sh– out of the enemy with great lust and relish and joy.

Rejoice with us now, and as soon as possible tell us when the bloodshed can begin, under your gracious sanction.

Enraged

My next response to Enraged needed all of my candidate skills, I felt, to defuse the incipient violence and to get as much information as possible about the potential perpetrators. I wrote:

Dear Enraged,

I must say I am a little surprised at the vehemence of your feelings about the upper exo-unders or “The Skins” (if we must use the vernacular). In researching this issue, one of my advisors pointed out that the Skins are not the only advocates with concerns that (at least on the surface) appear to mirror those of Zoltan, Larry, and yourself.

And I quote, “While I appreciated your effort to be inclusive and give credit where credit is clearly due (as in the case of the upper over-underwearians), you neglect other, perhaps more influential, constituencies: the ex-patriot Australian homosexual faction known as the “Former-Down-Under-Upper-Undie-Over-and-Outs”, to name but one.”

Perhaps I should be wondering whether this particular advisor has an ax to grind, an ox to gore, or a brief to carry. Nonetheless, his question raises the issue of just how many other underwearians there are and which of them you, Z, and Larry consider allies and which opponents. Before we engage in any provocation, it might be best to assess friends and targets a little more thoroughly.

To that end, perhaps you could send me your full name, address, phone number, social security number, mother’s maiden name, etc. and the same info, if possible, for Zoltan and Larry. Don’t worry about confidentiality. You can trust me.

Yours (once again) for greener drawers!
Sara

Unfortunately either my insensitive lumping of yet another set of perhaps hated underwearians in with Enraged’s cadre or my request for identity data caused Enraged to go underground. I have not heard from him since. Monkfish, who is of course the advisor quoted in the letter above, had this to say:

Sara,

Now as to the subject of being quoted in your running dialogue with the obviously fixated “Enraged”: while it’s true that I do indeed have a brief to carry, I’m disinclined to share them with the world — precious cargo you understand. You’ll not find me parading, undies outermost, among the throng — regardless of eventual Club policy. I’m busy grinding my axes into fillet knives, I’ve got other fish to fry. You see, it occurs to me that what the green movement needs is greater empathy, a deeper connection, indeed the very flavor of the wilderness, to inform our commitment and stimulate our movements. I’m therefore recommending that Club members restrict themselves to a diet of wood.

Yours,
Monkfish

Several months later, when my candidacy had failed and I thought the whole affair had ended, I received this postscript from Monkfish:

Sara:

Ray Davies’ show in Santa Rosa last weekend, or whenever it was — the days do slip by — revealed a timely connection to some of the issues surrounding your recent run at the S.C. B.O.D. It seems that for an unspecified period of time during the mid-sixties, Ray’s brother Dave (whom you may recall played lead guitar for the their band, The Kinks) insisted on appearing at their gigs and in public generally wearing his underwear outside his pants.

This being the ascendant age of Carnaby Street, Dave’s were no ordinary briefs. Brilliantly colored, preferably paisley silk or satin, often lace trimmed and of a ladies cut, you can easily perceive what an utter waste it would have been not to share them with the world. I offer this in a similar spirit, disclosing that which might otherwise remain concealed and only privately appreciated.

Yours,
Monkfish

I hope disclosing The Enraged Correspondence in this diary will amuse and help those of us who struggle with herding cats, coordinating zealots, keeping the peace, and focusing passion.

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Thursday, 10 Jun 1999

SEATTLE, Wash.

The Energy Coalition offices buzzed and bustled today. There was roller coaster news on the cheap-electricity-for-aluminum saga I wrote about earlier this week. The new chair of the Coalition Board, Deborah Smith of Montana River Action Network, joined us for lunch. Margie Gardner, E.D. of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance based in Portland, Ore., dropped in for a visit. A new British Columbian natural gas official met with our policy director. The communications staff were putting the finishing touches on the June issue of our policy journal and planning the July issue. And over it all, the anticipation of Outreach Associate Barbara Wilson’s commitment ceremony coming up on Sunday kept spirits high.

On Monday, we thought we would hear on Friday whether the aluminum industry would deign to accept the amazingly sweet deal the Bonneville Power Administration has offered it. Early Thursday, we heard from a BPA official that we should support (or at least not oppose) the deal because aluminum may just hold out for an even sweeter one. A little later we heard that “it was a done deal” and public interest groups, BPA’s utility customers and local officials could save their breath. By early afternoon, we heard that aluminum had asked for an extension on the offer until June 18. The deal gives aluminum a base electricity rate which amounts to about $70 million a year in under-market price subsidies for five years. If the price of aluminum goes down, the industry’s price of electricity can go as low as 1.9¢ per kilowatt-hour for an additional $70 million per year under market. A friend, who pays attention to world commodity prices and third world development, says the past five-year trend of falling commodity prices shows no signs of abating.

The fact that aluminum has not snapped up what looks like great deal makes me queasy. Rumors that the accommodation is coming from the highest levels and that the steelworkers are adding muscle are not comforting either. We will work with all our member groups, allies, and probably some fairly strange bedfellows to oppose the deal since largesse to aluminum always means screwing salmon, residential and other small electricity users, and investments in energy conservation, renewable energy, and low-income weatherization. Now we have ’til the 18th.

On the other hand, it was great to have our new chair, Deb Smith, in our offices. One of the things I love about the Coalition is the diversity of our member groups, and even more, the breadth, depth, and orneriness of the individuals who represent those groups on our board. Deb is a lawyer in Helena who has represented the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Renewable Northwest Project, and the Sierra Club in Montana’s biennial legislature. But this week she’s in Seattle for an American Immigration Lawyers Association conference. Along with her valiant and, especially this past legislative session, very successful environmental work, she takes on the thankless and often heartbreaking task of representing would-be immigrants. There aren’t many Montana lawyers who compete with her for this work.

Barbara and Sierra, Brides-to-be

And then there’s Barb’s commitment ceremony on Sunday to Sierra Hansen. Many of us on staff have important roles in the event. I have the very distinct honor of being the Celebrant. Our office manager is in charge of the music (the Coalition is her day job, she’s a singer/songwriter and concert producer of renown). Our policy director and her husband are hosting the Saturday night potluck.

Wednesday night, Chair Smith and I shared take-out Thai food with the fiancées and put the finishing touches on the ceremony. It will be an eloquent and touching celebration. Sierra and Barb have worked hard to find the right words to thank their family and friends for witnessing and supporting their commitment to each other. They want their loved ones to know how important this community ceremony is to them because our laws deny them the opportunity to make their commitment into a legal marriage. Human beings use ceremonies to call on the wisdom of our family and friends, to make public our important life decisions, to celebrate, and sometimes to console ourselves. Ceremonies help us to understand or simply to accept the seasons of our lives and the cycles of nature.

Sunday’s ceremony will do all that, and at the end all the guests will be given noisemakers: coiled paper whistles with feathers on their ends, whirling metal cracklers, sirens and kazoos. After the kiss, I will ask the congregation to join me in making a wonderful racket which will scare away evil spirits; banish jealousy, envy, homophobia, and avoided chores; and seal the beautiful brides and all of us in joy and love. Then we’ll all drink some well-deserved champagne and live happily ever after.