Federal Energy Commission Reaches for Control of Hydropower Licensing

WASHINGTON, DC, May 9, 2001 (ENS) - The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has proposed to centralize all authority for licensing of hydropower installations, now dispersed amongst several federal and state agencies, in its own hands. The move has drawn objections from environmental groups and praise from the electric power industry.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issues and oversees operating licenses for approximately 2,500 privately owned hydropower dams across the country. Over the next decade, the licenses for more than 400 dams affecting 130 different rivers will expire, representing two percent of the nation's energy mix.

In a report to Congress Tuesday, FERC asked for legislation to streamline the average 43 months it now takes to approve a hydropower license by eliminating what it calls "legislative balkanization."

FERC wants to legislate "one stop shopping at the Commission for all federal authorizations." Under this change, the authority of other federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service would be subject to the Commission's authority to reject or modify the conditions of any license based on "the Commission's overall public interest determination."

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The Rocky Reach Hydro Project is located in north central Washington state on the Columbia River, about seven miles upstream from the city of Wenatchee. (Photo courtesy Cheland County Public Utility District)
A single administrative process with schedules and deadlines established by the Commission, and a single environmental assessment document prepared by the Commission to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act would save time and money, FERC says.

The American Public Power Association, the Edison Electric Institute and the National Hydropower Association are pleased with the report. "The reportís premise, that the current hydroelectric licensing process must be fixed to preserve our nationís supply of clean, reliable, cost-efficient hydropower, is one that our individual associations and our combined memberships have been advocating for a number of years. 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," the power industry associations said in a joint statement.

Conservationists object that time and money are not the only important values to be considered in the licensing of hydropower dams. "The licensing process requires a balance between producing power and protecting the environment at hundreds of private hydropower dams," said Andrew Fahlund, chair of the Hydropower Reform Coalition, a coalition of more than 70 conservation and recreation groups working to protect rivers impacted by hydropower dams.

"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," Fahlund said today.

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Keswick Dam and Powerplant is located on the Sacramento River in Shasta County, California (Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)
The FERC report counters these objections by attempting to assure the public that the environment would be safeguarded under the system the Commission proposes. "Commenters who oppose Commission authority to determine license conditions base their opposition on the belief that the Commission will not adequately protect non-developmental resources and tribal treaty and cultural resources. Staff vigorously disagrees," the report declares.

FERC points out that it must abide by the Endangered Species Act and all other relevant laws and takes this responsibility "very seriously."

"The Commission will not permit the protection of fish and wildlife, water quality, wetlands, cultural resources, Indian treaty rights and resources, recreation and other resources to be compromised," FERC pledges.

But the Hydropower Reform Coalition views the proposal as "dramatically limiting the ability of state agencies to enforce the Clean Water Act, and undercutting the ability of federal and state agencies to require steps to protect fish and wildlife."

"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," said Matt Sicchio, coordinator for the Hydropower Reform Coalition. "A license to dam a public river is a privilege, not a right."

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The Boysen dam, reservoir and powerplant are located on the Wind River about 20 miles south of Thermopolis, Wyoming. (Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)
The length of time it takes for the states to issue water quality certifications is a "significant factor" in most delayed license proceedings and is the most common cause of long delayed proceedings. This certification often entails a parallel licensing process covering conditions for recreation, fish passage and cultural resources.

To overcome this delay, FERC is asking Congress to amend the Clean Water Act or Federal Power Act to "clarify that water quality certification is limited to physical and chemical water quality parameters related to the hydropower facility."

The Commission also recommends that all hydropower licenses be given for a term of 50 years instead of the current term minimum of 30 years and maximum of 50 years.

FERC says that if the Commission is not given full authority over the licensing process, an alternative would be to require resource agencies to take into account "the full panoply of public interest consideration," support their conditions on the record, and provide a clear administrative appeal process.

The power industry associations agree with FERC that legislation is necessary to fix what they call a dysfunctional licensing process. They "look forward to continuing to work in a bipartisan fashion with all members of Congress to enact substantive hydro licensing improvement measures this year."