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September 22, 2016

Tim Johnson ’91

After graduating from law school, Johnson worked at the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council, the U.S. Department of Justice, and with the private law firm Ball Janik. He has been with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), where he is assistant general counsel, for 21 years.
  • Robert M Reynolds

After graduating from law school, Johnson worked at the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council, the U.S. Department of Justice, and with the private law firm Ball Janik. He has been with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), where he is assistant general counsel, for 21 years.

How did you get into energy law?

I think it might have started in Michael Blumm’s public lands class, where we discussed the intersection between dam operations and wildlife. I clerked with the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council during my third year of law school and stayed on after graduation to help them finalize their fourth Fish and Wildlife Program. Then, I moved to the U.S. Department of Justice, where I represented Bonneville in the big Washington Public Power Supply System litigation—which involved one of the largest public bond defaults in U.S. history—arising from the failed construction of nuclear power plants. The litigation itself was extremely complicated, and I became hooked on energy law and policy.

What do you do at the BPA?

I manage a great group of 10 lawyers who focus on a host of issues related to power generation and sales. I have worked on negotiating long-term contracts with our power buyers, managing short-term power trades, complying with our conservation and efficiency requirements, dealing with our transmission tariffs, integrating renewable resources, and ensuring that our operations comply with applicable federal laws that impact the operations of the federal dams, including the Endangered Species Act.

We are basically driving a 1950s Chevy—our governing statutes—in a world of Teslas. The most recent power statute governing Bonneville was passed by Congress in 1980, and things have obviously changed profoundly since then.Tim Johnson ’91
What is your favorite thing about energy law?

The challenges and opportunities. We are basically driving a 1950s Chevy—our governing statutes—in a world of Teslas. The most recent power statute governing Bonneville was passed by Congress in 1980, and things have obviously changed profoundly since then. So, my job is really interesting, because it requires a lot of creative lawyering to make these old laws function in today’s dynamic energy world. We need to adapt while at the same time maintaining consistency with our prior positions. From a lawyer’s perspective, this challenge keeps things exciting.

Are things in the energy world more exciting now?

Not necessarily. It’s always been exciting. When I first came to Bonneville, the country was in the midst of electricity restructuring, and we spent several years designing new models to accommodate increased competition in the energy sector. Then the California energy crisis of 2000–01 hit, and that had a major impact on the BPA. Now, we’re in a period where we have a lot more renewables entering the system, and we might also be moving again towards a restructured market. All of these developments are linked, of course, but they all raise new issues and challenges.

What advice would you give to students interested in energy law?

Stay focused and engaged in the field even if you cannot get the specific energy law job you want right out of school. The energy industry is competitive and specialized, so you need to develop expertise.

To all students I’d say aim to find a place that fits you. The people I work with love what they do, which makes the work much easier and more enjoyable.