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Money, Not Environment, Behind Dam Removals

by Jeff Brady
Listen Oregon Public Radio, January 21, 2003

PORTLAND, OR (Oregon Considered) -- The United States removes more dams each year than any other country in the world. Of course, the U.S. has more dams to start with. But in recent years it's become clear that dams cause all sorts of problems for endangered fish. Still, when a dam is removed, it's rarely for environmental reasons. Money is usually the reason dams are taken out.

About twelve to 24 dams are removed each year in the U.S. That may not seem like a lot considering the thousands of dams that exist. But compared to the past when the country was focused on building dams--it's quite a turnaround.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC regulates most of the dams in the U.S. It issues 30 to 50 year licenses to dam owners like Portland General Electric. The utility owns nine dams. The company's head of hydropower licensing, Julie Keil, says getting a new license is a complicated process.

Julie Keil: "You know, I say, I'm gonna get a new license,' and people think, Well it's like going down to the driver's bureau and getting a new driving license.' And it's not like that at all. It's like building a new project from scratch."

Keil says PGE starts the process about five years before the license expires. During that time, the utility sits down with everyone who has an interest in the dam, including the government agencies that regulate it.

Julie Keil: "And here at Portland General Electric, we take that as absolutely a fresh look and try and decide whether or not this is still the right place to make energy. Whether it makes sense from an economic perspective and an environmental perspective."

Every one of PGE's hydropower projects is subject to the Endangered Species Act. That's because threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead pass through those dams. A large part of the relicensing process involves what sort of fish friendly upgrades the company will pay for.

In recent years, PGE has been examining the Bull Run Hydroelectric Project east of Portland. It contains two older dams the Marmot and the Little Sandy with licenses set to expire next year. The dams are pretty small they only produce enough power to keep about 16,000 homes running. So PGE decided it wasn't worth it, economically, to keep the dams.

Oregon Public Utility Commission Chair Roy Hemmingway says several other dam owners in the region have reached the same conclusion.

Roy Hemmingway: "Making the dam more environmentally friendly is sometimes a good deal more expensive than taking it out and getting the power from somewhere else."

Before he became Oregon's top utility regulator, Hemmingway worked for former Governor John Kitzhaber as his salmon and energy policy advisor. Hemmingway says economics generally drive dam removal. Most of the dams that are taken out are smaller and don't make a lot of money for their owners.

Hemmingway says getting rid of some of the big dams, like those on the Snake River, is nearly impossible.

Roy Hemmingway: "Some of the larger dams have quite profound environmental impacts and they don't produce a lot of electricity but they do end up having a constituency that favors them such as the Snake River Dams are favored by the irrigation and barge transportation interests. So, that makes it difficult to develop a political solution that will favor their removal."

Former Governor Kitzhaber made news three years ago when he endorsed breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River. No other political figure in the Northwest has endorsed removing the dams.

But even in the Kitzhaber administration there was no effort to identify and eliminate dams that were hurting fish. Chris Dearth was Kitzhaber's chief environmental advisor:

Chris Dearth: "No, that wasn't our role. Our role was to negotiate in good faith on the re-licensing and then if decommissioning came up as part of that discussion then we would pursue that."

"Low-hanging fruit" is what Steve Rothert calls dams that owners agree to remove. He's with the environmental group American Rivers.

Steve Rothert: "I would say that we have probably identified all of the low-hanging fruit and if we haven't already started to work on those projects people are trying to gear up to do that."

Rothert says next is the "harder to reach fruit" those dams that the owners don't want to remove. He doesn't expect to get much help from FERC. Rothert says even though the agency says it has the right to force removal of a dam against the owner's will, it's only done that once, with a dam in Maine.

Steve Rothert: "And historically they were tasked with promoting hydropower development. So, it's been quite a cultural change within FERC to even get them to assert that they have the authority to order decommissioning."

Rothert thinks FERC should require dam owners to consider removal as an option during the re-licensing process.

Steve Rothert: "We're talking about private companies profiting from public resources. To get a full consideration of what the public interests are in this situation, it should have to consider all options for the management of that resource including dam decommissioning if that makes sense."

Rothert admits he doesn't expect FERC to do this anytime soon. The commission did not respond to OPB's repeated requests for an interview on the topic.

Since economics is the major factor in deciding whether to remove a dam, it may become more difficult to get Northwest dams decommissioned in the future. That's because power prices are expected to steadily rise and that could make small dams, only marginally profitable now, much more profitable in the future.

Jeff Brady
Money, Not Environment, Behind Dam Removals
Oregon Public Radio, January 21, 2003

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