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Congress Moves Forward with Hydro License Reforms

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 4, 2003

Spurred by concerns over U.S. oil supplies, House and Senate leaders are pressing forward with comprehensive energy bills, both of which include hydropower relicensing reforms opposed by environmental groups.

The changes would affect the federal hydroelectric facility permitting process, which often requires dam owners to improve fish passage and in-stream flows. The 30-to-50-year licenses of more than 500 dams on 150 rivers in 38 states will expire over the next 15 years, and owners must seek new permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The projects supply over 50 percent of the nation's hydroelectricity.

The reforms are backed by utilities, energy developers and key Northwest Republican members, who complain the current licensing process is costly, time-consuming and detrimental to energy production.

The provisions adopted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee "will bring long-sought and much-needed substantive reforms" to a process "which has long been broken," National Hydropower Association executive director Linda Church Ciocci said. "(They) will better allow hydropower to continue playing an important role as the nation's oldest and most reliable renewable energy resource."

The bill's approval came after committee Republicans defeated, 27-23, a Democratic attempt to replace the industry-backed section with a hydropower reform compromise that passed the House as part of last year's energy bill. The two Northwest members of the committee, Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and C.L. "Butch" Otter, R-Idaho, opposed the Democratic amendment.

The committee then approved the comprehensive bill by a vote of 36-17. The full House could take up the legislation as early as next week.

Meantime, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled several days of meetings starting next week to complete its new energy bill. Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., included a similar hydropower licensing section in draft legislation that the committee will consider.

Otter said the bill protects jobs and encourages economic growth by enhancing "the efficient, relatively inexpensive hydropower generation and transmission system that makes Idaho and the Northwest the envy of the world." At the same time, it provides incentives for developing and expanding new and alternative energy sources and reduces future dependence on imported fossil fuels.

Both the Senate and House provisions are based on a hydropower amendment developed by Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Gordon Smith, R-Ore. It passed the Senate last year as part of its energy bill.

Last year in response to President George W. Bush's proposed national energy policy, the House and Senate passed different bills but failed to reach agreement on a final version.

Reps. George Radanovich, R-Calif., Walden and Ed Towns, D-N.Y., introduced their hydropower reform measure as a separate bill earlier this year. It was then incorporated into the House Energy and Commerce Committee bill.

Both versions would allow dam owners to gain approval of their environmental mitigation measures over those demanded by state and federal agencies. Environmental groups charged standards for alternatives would be too weak to adequately restore salmon and other fish and that the public and state fisheries officials would be shut out of the process.

Both the House bill and draft Senate bill would:

A coalition of environmental and fishing groups including American Rivers and Trout Unlimited agreed reforms to the hydroelectric relicensing process are needed. But they said the House and Senate bills now under consideration would undermine the ability of states and conservationists in several ways: FERC announced plans for revising hydropower licensing rules on Feb. 21 and is expected to issue a final rule by July 2003. The initial proposal seeks makes several administrative changes to improve agency coordination and to engage FERC staff earlier in working out agreements for fish passage, flows and other requirements. Energy and Commerce Committee ranking Democrat John Dingell of Michigan, called the new House bill's provision "an attempt to give the hydropower industry unprecedented advantage during the licensing process at the expense of protections for fish, wildlife, and other natural resources."

Dingell said that under last year's compromise, any party to a licensing process, not just the dam owner, could propose an alternative that must be accepted under certain conditions.

Also, he said the industry-backed proposal would require federal agencies to accept an alternative fishway so long as it is no less protective of "fish resources." Last year's compromise had a higher standard of "no less effective than the fishway initially prescribed."

Fishway prescriptions have been a part of public law for 100 years, Dingell said. "Congress has always recognized that fish passage is vital not only to the preservation of migratory fish species but also to the overall health of a river," he said. But the committee's changes would allow a dam owner to substitute a hatchery for "the natural and necessary movement of fish upstream and downstream of a project," thereby harming river health, Dingell said.

"This measure creates more process and delay, it reduces protections for the rivers and fisheries impacted by hydroelectric generation, and it limits the ability of state resource agencies and conservationists to play a meaningful role in the relicensing process," he said.

CBB Staff
Congress Moves Forward with Hydro License Reforms
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 4, 2003

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