Bush Due to Issueby John Miller, Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho -- President Bush is set to issue new rules governing the relicensing of the nation's hydroelectric dams, a move the energy industry hopes will cut bureaucratic hurdles but that some argue could weaken environmental protections.
The new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules, due out as early as Thursday, are part of the 2005 energy bill Bush signed Aug. 8. They're detailed in 109 pages of Interior Department documents obtained by The Associated Press.
According to the changes, utilities now will be able to challenge requirements written into dam licenses by federal agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Such conditions can set river flows to boost recreation - or even force utilities to build fish ladders to bolster endangered salmon and steelhead runs.
In addition, the new rules will allow utilities to propose their own alternatives to such conditions.
Companies such as Idaho Power, in the midst of relicensing its 1,167-megawatt Hells Canyon complex on the Snake River, and PacifiCorp, which wants new permits for five dams on Oregon's Klamath River, hope the rule changes will streamline a relicensing process that now can last a decade, adding hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to customers.
"Now, the only way you could really dispute something in a license is to wait until the license has been issued by FERC, and then go to court," said Linda Church-Ciocci, director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Hydropower Association, which lobbied for the changes. "The new rules are going to speed the licensing process up, in the sense that they could certainly help avoid a long, protracted court case."
Critics, meanwhile, say the new rules give power companies more rights than states, Indian tribes and others with a stake in dam relicensing.
They also say the rules encourage utilities to challenge license requirements meant to protect the environment.
"The whole point is to question agency biologists and other scientists about their scientific basis of knowledge," said Robbin Marks, from the conservation group American Rivers in Washington D.C. "The process is designed to get the agencies to back down from proposing conditions in the first place."
More than 200 dam projects in 36 states, generating enough power to light more than 22.5 million homes, are due to apply for new operating licenses by 2020. The new rules will apply to all these projects.
The electricity industry has argued these changes are long overdue and necessary so utilities can continue to satisfy America's growing appetite for energy. That's expected to grow by some 1.9 percent annually for the next two decades.
Utilities say they've often felt hamstrung by the existing licensing process, arguing that government agencies in charge of adding the requirements had little incentive to consider a company's concerns.
"Outcomes were dictated by agencies that saw only their own set of objectives," said Dave Kvamme, a spokesman for Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp. "We want to make changes to meet the needs of these rivers. But we don't want to do it at just any cost."
Critics fear the new rules will be a disincentive for utilities to continue settlement negotiations such as those taking place now among four Indian tribes, government agencies and conservation groups and PacifiCorp, over its license renewal on the Klamath River, where dams have blocked migrating salmon since 1917.
If a utility can successfully challenge a licensing condition, it may walk away from the bargaining table, environmentalists said.
"There's a lot more at stake here than whether we're going to generate hydropower and how much," said Steve Pedery, a spokesman for the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "We're disappointed in seeing Congress elevating the commercial interests above everything else."
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