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Democrats Target ‘Flaws’ in Craig Bill

by Ken Dey
Idaho Statesman, June 4, 2003

Provisions alter conditions for dam relicensing

Environmental groups and Indian tribes are backing a new amendment to the Senate’s Energy Bill that would eliminate many of the new hydropower licensing conditions proposed by Idaho Sen. Larry Craig.

Although Craig, a Republican, has championed his changes to the hydropower section of the Energy Bill as bringing “balance” to the complicated process of relicensing hydropower dams, opponents fear his changes would strip away environmental protections and give too much clout to power companies.

New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is being joined by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, to sponsor the amendment.

They plan a press conference today to officially unveil the amendment.

“We clearly don’t have a problem with the relicensing of facilities, but we see this section as it currently exists as flawed and in need of being fixed,” Bill Wicker, spokesman for the Democrats on the Senate Energy Committee, said Tuesday.

Wicker said Bingaman’s amendment is identical to an amendment that passed the House last session and had the support of both environmentalists and the hydropower industry.

“That was a compromise we were willing to support, and it gave industry what it wanted, but they decided to strike out on their own and get a lot more,” said Andrew Fahlund, senior program director with American Rivers.

But Mark Stover, a spokesman for the National Hydropower Association, said the hydropower industry agreed with the House version only to move the matter forward.

“Our intent was to go for language that we think would bring better reforms,” Stover said, adding that Craig’s version does that.

Creating “balance”

The most significant changes in Craig’s version are new rules that would allow power companies to propose alternatives to license conditions imposed by federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bingaman’s amendment also allows proposed alternatives, but it gives that authority to all parties involved in the relicensing and not just the power companies.

Craig’s language also says the agencies must evaluate those alternatives and consider not only the effects on the environmental issues but also on such things as power production, economics, flood control and recreation.

“We’re trying to create some flexibility,” Craig said. “Right now they (the agencies) have the right to demand things that are impossible to reach and too costly to reach.”

Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe says Craig is putting too much emphasis on keeping costs down for power companies.

“The tribe has a lot of cultural and natural resources that need to be protected, and we can’t walk over those for the sake of economics,” said Marley Hochendoner, policy analyst and staff attorney for the Nez Perce Tribe. “We need to be assured that the resources will be protected.”

Craig’s changes come at a time when relicensing is starting to explode. Nearly 300 projects in 37 states have licenses that expire between now and 2018.

One of the biggest relicensing projects is the Hells Canyon Complex on the Snake River, owned by Idaho Power Co. The company’s license to operate the three-dam complex expires in 2005.

But Idaho Power officials say they didn’t ask Craig to propose any changes. Company spokesman Dennis Lopez said the company is so far along with the relicensing process that it doesn’t believe Craig’s changes will be of any benefit.

Although agencies will be required to consider an alternative, Stover, the industry spokesman, said the agencies will still have the final say on what they accept.

But if the agencies deny an alternative, Craig’s language would give power companies and other dam operators the authority to request a hearing before the secretary who oversees the agency. Bingaman’s amendment would strip away that option.

Fahlund, of American Rivers, said he believes Craig’s “trial-type hearing” could add nearly three years to the licensing process.

Craig said it’s possible the hearing could take six months to a year, but Craig and Stover think it’s a good trade-off because the hearings could potentially reduce the number of appeals when final license conditions are set.

If the companies “get an early factual determination, and what the reasoning was behind it, that should reduce the appeal of the final license,” Stover said.

Dueling definitions

Environmentalists and the tribes are also unhappy with language changes Craig included in the bill.

Under Bingaman’s amendment power companies and others could offer alternatives to the conditions only if the condition “provides no less protection” for the environment, but Craig’s version allows alternative conditions if they “adequately protect” the resource.

Fahlund and others say “adequate” is too loose a definition.

Craig disagrees.

“If all scientists agree and engineers agree, then it is adequate,” Craig said.

Fahlund said his group and others are also concerned with Craig’s language that defines how alternatives to fishway requirements can be met. The term fishway refers to passage of native salmon upstream and downstream of a hydropower project.

The language in Craig’s version would allow companies to propose an “alternative to a fishway.”

Sara Eddie, director of hydropower and energy programs for Idaho Rivers United, says that under that definition a company could offer a hatchery program as an alternative, a solution that would do nothing to help improve the passage of native salmon past the dams.

“If all parties agree to an alternative to a fishway and it still serves the purpose at hand, I will not define it another way,” Craig countered.

Craig said he hasn’t seen Bingaman’s amendment so he couldn’t comment on any specifics, but Craig said he will have strong support for his version when the Senate debate resumes.

That has Eddie, Fahlund and others worried.

“In years past we wouldn’t think it (Craig’s proposal) would pass, but it’s a lot harder to tell this year. We’re less optimistic,” Eddie said.

Ken Dey
Democrats Target ‘Flaws’ in Craig Bill
Idaho Statesman, June 4, 2003

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