U.S. Groups Differ in Opinion on New Hydro Regulations

Three major associations in the United States welcome a federal report that underscores the need to amend the current licensing process for hydroelectric facilities.

WASHINGTON, DC, US, 2001-05-10 <SolarAccess.com> The American Public Power Association, Edison Electric Institute and National Hydropower Association are pleased with a report issued to Congress by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. They say the report’s premise is that hydroelectric licensing policies, procedures and regulations “must be fixed to preserve our nation’s supply of clean, reliable, cost-efficient hydropower.” Commenting on the same report, the environmental groups American Rivers and the Hydropower Reform Coalition say the FERC proposals will “dramatically weaken states, tribes and federal resource agencies’ ability to protect the environment during the hydropower licensing process.” The report recommends that Congress restore FERC’s primary authority for licensing hydro projects and constrain the ability of environmental agencies to impose conditions on projects regardless of their economic consequences. “The commission has scant control over the costs of preparing a license application or of the costs of environmental mitigation and enhancement,” it notes. “If Congress does not restore the commission’s authority to determine license conditions based on a balanced consideration of all public interest factors, staff recommends that it clarify and limit authority for other federal agencies.” Industry groups warn that the supply of hydroelectricity is threatened by a licensing process that gives more weight to environmental factors than to the economic and clean-air benefits of the technology. “The stakes are even higher now that California and the West continue to grapple with an energy supply insufficient to meet growing consumer and industrial demand,” say the hydro groups. “The options laid out in the FERC report underscore our long-held belief that legislation is necessary to fully repair this dysfunctional licensing process.” American Rivers calls the proposal a “power grab” in response to the direction from Congress to find ways to “reduce the cost and time” of obtaining a dam licence. The report was issued just days after the General Accounting Office concluded that until FERC improves its data collection on the cost and timing of its process, the agency will not be able to reach informed decisions on the need for further administrative reforms or legislative changes to the licensing process. “The licensing process requires a balance between producing power and protecting the environment at hundreds of private hydropower dams,” says Andrew Fahlund of the Hydropower Reform Coalition that includes 70 groups. “FERC wants the authority to say no to the real experts on how to protect the water, the wildlife, or the recreational value of our rivers.” FERC issues operating licenses for 2,500 private hydro dams in the U.S., of which more than 400 will expire during the next decade. The re-licencing process allows federal and state agencies to set minimum protections for water quality, flow, fish passage and land protection and temperature standards, and require the construction of fish ladders and other structures to protect ecological health and recreation in order to bring dams up to modern environmental standards for ecological health and recreation. Once granted, licences are valid for up to 50 years. The FERC report proposes five legislative and eight regulatory changes that would dramatically limit the ability of state agencies to enforce the Clean Water Act, undercut the ability of federal and state agencies to require steps to protect fish and wildlife, and transfer ultimate authority on dams located in National Forests and on Tribal lands to FERC, says the coalition. “These changes would take us back to the day when FERC and the hydro industry could decide the fate of our rivers behind closed doors,” adds Matt Sicchio. “A license to dam a public river is a privilege, not a right.” The FERC report was mandated by the last Congress during debate on hydropower licensing reform. Advocates of reform are expected to receive endorsement in the energy policy task force, expected to be released by Vice President Richard Cheney next week.

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