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State and Utilities Start Talking About Idaho’s Energy Future – Without the Public

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On Aug. 17, the state’s energy office, several state officials and several of its regulated utilities began discussing, among other things, how Idaho will comply with the sweeping EPA Clean Power Plan to reduce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants. But someone dropped the ball and forgot to notify the public.

The Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance (ISEA), housed in the state’s Office of Energy Resources, was created by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter in 2007 as “Idaho’s primary mechanism to engage in seeking options for and enabling advanced energy production, energy efficiency, and energy business in the State of Idaho.” It is charged with providing policy direction and planning aimed at increasing the state of Idaho’s production of renewable and sustainable energy, and identifying “new and innovative means to increase production of energy in Idaho.” There is no environmental or other public interest group representation on the ISEA Board.

OER and the ISEA earned some notoriety in 2011, when the Idaho Legislature charged it with freshening figures and statistics in the Idaho Energy Plan, first approved by the Legislature in 2007. To update the Energy Plan in 2011, ISEA took the Legislature’s request and ran with it, not only updating facts and figures in the Energy Plan but going much further, unwinding many of the 2007 plan’s goals and recommendations and watering it down considerably.

The 19-member ISEA’s Board of Directors includes representatives from most of Idaho’s regulated utilities, the Idaho National Laboratory, and various state offices. ISEA also includes several “task forces” that spent months looking into everything from wind, solar and geothermal to energy efficiency, transportation and other matters. And this is where things began to unravel.

Those volunteer task forces created extensive reports and forwarded them – with scores of recommendations on how Idaho can improve its energy policies – to the ISEA Board. Then, in a remarkable meeting observed only by the Snake River Alliance, the ISEA Board methodically rejected the overwhelming number of its own task forces’ recommendations. The result, which eventually became Idaho’s 2012 Energy Plan, contains a wealth of valuable factual information, but plan writers couldn’t stop there. Between the ISEA Board’s shredding of the task force reports and then further assaults by certain legislators, a plan emerged that, predictably, was scrubbed of many meaningful policies, recommendations, and direction on how to modernize Idaho’s energy infrastructure. The Alliance and dozens of others complained mightily that development the 2012 Energy Plan was entrusted to the ISEA Board and its utility members – any one of which had veto power over any of the task force recommendations, which is how so many of those recommendations wound up on the cutting room floor. The Alliance appeared more than once before the legislative committees overseeing the plan’s development, and submitted detailed comments on how the Energy Plan rewrite went awry.

OER and ISEA were told by some lawmakers then that transparency and the public involvement process was inadequate. Which makes what happened in last month all the more bewildering. An ISEA Board meeting was scheduled for Aug. 17. But there was no notice of the meeting, let alone an agenda or location (we learned it was in Idaho Falls). So, of course, there was no opportunity for the public to attend. An innocuous item was placed on OER’s calendar page, but nothing on its “meetings” page. In short, the Aug. 17 meeting was essentially private. It is likely that, inasmuch as OER or ISEA were not created by state statute, it is not bound by Idaho’s open meeting requirements, although the Aug. 17 meeting appears to have violated the spirit of Idaho’s open meeting law.

Given the public was not notified about the meeting, it’s impossible to know with any precision what was discussed at that meeting and by whom. And that’s no small thing. This group hadn’t met in more than a year, since June 2014, but with the state now dealing with writing a plan to comply with the new EPA coal plant rule and a “preliminary discussion on Idaho’s Strategy moving forward,” and with another update of the Idaho Energy Plan likely in 2016 (it was on the Aug. 17 agenda as well), who knows? Also on the agenda, which the Alliance obtained after the Aug. 17 meeting and after asking for it, since it’s not on OER’s website, was a discussion of “Energy issues and the 2016 Idaho Legislative Session” with the chairs of the House and Senate committees that oversee energy issues, having been invited, though again we don’t know if they showed up.

Finally, the Alliance has been told that Idaho Public Utilities Commission President Paul Kjellander was chosen as vice-chair of the ISEA Board during that Aug. 17 meeting.

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