Environmentalists swim upstream against dam licensing proposal

Federal agencies will face a flood of requests from dam owners in the next 15 years to renew operating licenses. More than half of the hydropower industry, which produces about 7 percent of the electricity used in this country, is up for renewal.

It’s a daunting prospect, and not only for the federal workers who will have to sift through the paperwork.
Federal agencies will face a flood of requests from dam owners in the next 15 years to renew operating licenses. More than half of the hydropower industry, which produces about 7 percent of the electricity used in this country, is up for renewal.

It’s a daunting prospect, and not only for the federal workers who will have to sift through the paperwork.
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Some environmentalists would like dam owners to be required to install salmon bypasses as a condition of license renewals.

Many of the industry’s plants were built before environmental worries about fish or the rivers themselves took hold. Licenses could place costly new conditions on the industry, such as the construction of fish ladders to provide salmon and other fish with a route around deadly turbines.

The Interior Department, one of three federal agencies that play a role in the licensing process, has proposed a rule change to give the industry its own bypass of sorts in the process. Environmental groups, state officials and Indian tribes are opposing the change, saying that it would tip the scales in favor of dam owners.

The rule “provides an appeal process that only dam owners could use,” said Andrew Fahlund, the vice president for protection and restoration at the group American Rivers, which is fighting the proposed rule. “It politicizes what has been a traditionally science-based process.”

Under the proposed rule, which could be finalized within weeks, dam owners could appeal a decision by Interior staff to one of several assistant secretaries, who are political appointees.

If, for example, an industry applicant didn’t think a fish ladder was worth the cost, the dam owner could ask an assistant secretary to remove it as a condition of license approval.

The appeal would help ensure a better “balance of competing interests” by adding another “layer of accountability and transparency” to the process, said Mark Stover, a lobbyist for the National Hydropower Association (NHA), which represents privately owned dams.

Other stakeholders could respond to an industry appeal under Interior’s proposed rule change. But they wouldn’t be able to file an appeal of their own — say, to try to add a ladder if none was required as a condition of renewal.

“The inadequacy of an environmental condition is just as big a concern as a condition industry thinks is overly burdensome,” Fahlund said.

Indian tribes and officials from six states have also written to the department opposing the rule change.

Interior officials have said that opening the appeal process to other parties would delay the process. That would also hold up implementation of what are likely to be stronger environmental protections.

There are potentially millions of dollars at stake for the industry. Required environmental safeguards could raise the price of power, making it harder for the industry to compete in an increasingly competitive energy marketplace.

“Without improvements, the licensing process will continue to erode the many benefits provided by hydropower projects to millions of electricity consumers across the United States,” the NHA and the Edison Electric Institute, which represents privately owned utilities, argued in comments to Interior.

Three departments play a role in license renewals: Interior, Agriculture and Commerce. Each can require that an applicant meet a set of mandatory conditions to renew its license.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) actually issues the license.

Stover said FERC can add conditions to the license, but it can’t weaken those identified by the three agencies.

The industry’s only recourse now to challenge an agency decision is to sue after FERC has made its decision, Stover said.

Congress has called for a similar change in the licensing process. The energy bill that has stalled in the Senate gives dam owners exclusive appeal rights in all the agencies, not just Interior.

The legislation would also explicitly state that FERC must equally weigh economic factors with environmental concerns when approving a license.