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Posts published in November 2013

Shadow shogun

carlson CHRIS
CARLSON

 
Carlson
Chronicles

His name was Gideon Oppenheimer. Pudgy with thinning hair, he looked incongruous in his white Jaguar XKE called the rocket. From 1960 to 1969 he pursued Idaho’s best and brightest high school graduates as assiduously as Alabama Coach Nick Saban would pursue a top prospect.. He wanted Idaho’s student cream to attend his beloved alma mater, Columbia University.

Wealthy and single, he enjoyed publishing a Meridian newspaper and practicing law. He cultivated Idaho high school counselors, obtained SAT scores, and roared off in the rocket to anywhere he could identify a potential recruit.

Oppenheimer would passionately pitch Columbia. Cultured and sophisticated, he loved books, music, fine cuisine and duplicate bridge. And his adopted state, though he often decried its politics.

In 1969, though only 49, he died of heart failure. By then he had recruited over 60 of Idaho’s best. While he never was pushy about it, he sent each off with encouragement to return and contribute to Idaho’s future.

Those who did more than delivered. Among the Idaho/Columbia recruits were Joe and Ward Parkinson, the founders of Micron; Larry Grant, Micron’s corporate counsel; the late John Tait, a super lawyer in Lewiston; Dale Goble, University of Idaho Schimke Distinguished Professor of Law; Mike Mikesell, founder of Boise’s Guido’s Pizza; Jeff Fereday, an outstanding natural resources lawyer; Ralph Comstock, Jr., an international export businessman; and Pat Ford, an executive director of the Idaho Conservation League before focusing his attention on saving the northwest’s salmon runs.

The one, however, who has had the most beneficial long-term impact on the lives of all Idahoans was Conley Ward, Vallivue High School Class of 1965, who died last week at age 66 in his home at Kuna of acute leukemia.

Quarterback of his football team because he was an accurate passer, good friend Mikesell fondly recalled, “He was the slowest quarterback I ever saw.”

Ward was one of those rare people one never forgets. He had an aura of competence, intelligence, candor and self-deprecating humor. There wasn’t a pretentious bone in his body. He embodied integrity. One knew instinctively he knew what he was talking about.

When he bit into a subject, he sank his teeth. Whether it was fly fishing, golf, a favorite author, Northwest energy policy, the telecommunications business, or the arcane minutiae of utility rates, he read everything he could get his hands on and mastered it as few can. At age 29 he became the nation’s youngest public utility commissioner.

During his 11 year stint he demonstrated that conservation often is the least-cost energy resource. Additionally, he put in place programs to help the poor and disadvantaged afford basic heat and light.

Where he did the most for Idaho, however, was earlier as a young PUC staff attorney. Long-time friend Pat Ford points out that as no one else could, Ward first presented the proof in the agency hearing and then drafted the PUC opinion rejecting Idaho Power’s application to build the Pioneer coal-burning power plant near Boise.

According to Fereday, “He saved utility customers from huge rate increases and the Boise Valley from degraded air quality. With the no-go order Idaho Power avoided financing a hugely expensive plant at a time when the region’s electrical demand was slowing dramatically, just as Conley had predicted.” (more…)

Ward’s legacy

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

Attorney Conley Ward, 66, who died last week at Kuna, has been for several decades an important but quietly influential figure in Idaho's energy and infrastructure world. He chaired of the state Democratic Party from 1988-91, and served as a member of the Public Utilities Commission from 1977 to 1986. He won respect in all these areas.

Before any of that, before more than a few Idahoans knew his name, an important piece of work he did with a small group of activists changed the state's future. How important: Idaho would be poorer and your electric power bills vastly higher than if he had no acted when he did.

In the mid-70s an irrigation-led bump in power demand persuaded planners at Idaho Power Company they needed access to a lot more juice. This was, remember, barely two decades after its capacity had exploded with the building of the Hells Canyon dams, but the worry was considerable: What if Idaho ran out of available electric power?

In 1974 Idaho Power applied with the Public Utilities Commission to build a massive coal-fired power plant to be called Pioneer, about 25 miles east of Boise. Boise was much smaller then, but its air quality was worse. When word got out about Pioneer, a handful of critics (such as attorney Jeff Fereday and newspaper editorialist Ken Robison) blasted the idea. At first, though, Pioneer looked unstoppable. Its advocates far outnumbered critics, and Idaho Power then rarely lost Idaho political battles.

Around then, PUC Commissioner Robert Lenaghan hired Ward, a young attorney and a native of Owyhee County, and assigned him to the Pioneer proposal and its implications. Ward was not the only person looking into Pionerr, but he was the man on the inside, and the PUC's questioning of the project rapidly grew sharper. The original $400 million cost estimate for Pioneer expanded, under pressure, to $600, and then – under heated inquiry from Lenaghan – to $828 million. Quoted in an essay by environmentalist Pat Ford, Ward recalled, “at that time the net value of their entire system [Hells Canyon dams included] was $648 million. And Pioneer was only half their 10-year construction program. By 1986 they planned to spend $1.6 billion on a new plant.”

He concluded that the cheap hydropower would be swamped by coal power that would cost six or seven times as much, and could double, or triple, electric power rates. Idaho would go from being one of the least expensive power states to among the most expensive. (more…)