Until last year, Harney Electric General Manager Fred Flippence had never been to Washington, D.C. Now, after 3 work trips in a year, he is becoming a seasoned pro on Capitol Hill. His visits have included a private meeting with the director of the Bureau of Land Management and testimony before a congressional subcommittee.
The reasons Flippence has achieved this notoriety are many, but it’s not because his electric cooperative is one of the biggest in the nation—at least when it comes to population. Harney Electric has approximately 1,200 members, spread over a territory only slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia. This comparison drew gasps when Flippence addressed a crowd of more than 1,000 electric co-op leaders at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s legislative conference in April in downtown Washington, D.C.
The next day, Flippence—at the invitation of Chairman Cliff Bentz—testified in front of a subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee on the impact of the Endangered Species Act on his sprawling high desert territory.
Harney Electric, which encompasses areas in Eastern Oregon and portions of northern Nevada is, as Flippence often reminds people, not a rural electric cooperative. It’s a frontier electric cooperative. The federal government has massive holdings in Harney’s territory, most notably the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
At the hearing, Flippence discussed the challenges of dealing with federal agencies. He testified how the USFWS denied a permit to run power lines through its refuge until Flippence pointed out the line would provide electricity to the USFWS office.
He also described the BLM’s plans to have Harney underground hundreds of miles of power lines to protect sage grouse. This plan was shelved only when the co-op objected that not only would it not protect the sage grouse, but it would also bankrupt the co-op.
By all measures, it was compelling testimony from the straight- talking Flippence, who has a unique way of describing how federal policies will impact the pocketbooks of his members, most of whom he knows by name. He may be new to Washington, D.C., but he is making sure he’s being heard in the corridors of power. In his view, his members may be scattered between lonely miles of sagebrush, but they still deserve a powerful voice.