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Hells Canyon Relicensing Hits IdaCorp Shareholder Meeting

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 31, 2002

Environmental groups and an asset management firm petitioned IdaCorp's shareholders at the company's annual shareholder meeting in mid-May to pass a resolution that would force the utility to provide hydro relicensing information about the company's Hells Canyon complex of three hydroelectric dams on the Snake River.

The resolution, which also called for IdaCorp to determine the potential economic impacts to the company of breaching four lower Snake River dams, garnered 34 percent of the available votes at the meeting, which is not enough to force the utility to cough up the information. Even so, the petitioners are claiming victory.

"This vote is a huge victory for shareholders and the environment," said Lisa Leff, vice president of Trillium Asset Management, which specializes in socially responsible asset management and holds about $4.3 million in IdaCorp stock for clients. "The level of investor support far exceeds our expectations. In our experience, any shareholder vote over 10 percent indicates investor unrest. Today, over one third of voting stockholders have said that IdaCorp cannot continue to withhold information about the Hells Canyon Complex relicensing."

Leff added that the complex of dams affects the environment, endangered species and IdaCorp's bottom line, and shareholders need to know the economic costs of relicensing. She said that Idaho Power will have to mitigate for the impacts the dams have on endangered species -- such as providing fish passage or water quality control structures -- as a condition of renewing its license and it should report the predicted costs of an array of mitigation options to shareholders.

IdaCorp's Jeff Beaman called the vote more of a moral victory for the groups, but said the company still will not provide immediately the periodic reports the groups requested. The utility expects to include in September much of that information in the draft application it is preparing for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That's when the information will become part of the public record, he said.

"On one end of the spectrum are groups who want to run the dams for power generation only: on the other end of the spectrum are those who want the projects to bear total and complete responsibility for environmental impacts," Beaman said. "It's our job to balance those views."

In the mid-1990s, Idaho Power invited stakeholders, including the environmental groups to participate in a collaborative relicensing process. However, a coalition of environmental groups (American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, Idaho Rivers United and the Hells Canyon Preservation Council), chose to withdraw from the talks in May 2001 after the utility said it wouldn't discuss issues relevant to a pending biological opinion. It was consulting on the BiOp jointly with FERC and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The BiOp, which still is pending, would address the impacts of the existing operations of the three dams on salmon and steelhead species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Sara Denniston Eddie of Idaho Rivers United said the utility could avoid litigation and more costly mitigation measures if it would begin to disclose the information now.

However, Beaman said there is a fundamental difference between the parties and Idaho Power about the timing of disclosing important information, but that the "doors are always open" for the groups to come back to the collaborative process. The risk of releasing information too early, he said, is that the groups could pick out information and use it against the utility before it had been finalized. It presented many of those findings at a collaborative workshop early in May.

Although Idaho Power doesn't own the four federal lower Snake River dams, their removal could affect what Idaho Power would have to do at its Hells Canyon dams. If their removal benefits listed fish, Idaho Power may need to complete fewer mitigation measures, the groups said. However, if they are not removed, that could mean even more costly mitigation measures for the utility.

"The government's decision whether to remove the lower Snake dams has a direct impact on the Hells Canyon Complex and IdaCorp," said Leff. "And if removal of the federal Snake River dams would benefit the company financially, it's critical that IdaCorp disclose that to its shareholders."

That information will not be a part of the license application, according to Beaman.

Link information:
Idaho Power
American Rivers
Idaho Rivers United
Trillium Asset Management

Mike O'Bryant
Hells Canyon Relicensing Hits IdaCorp Shareholder Meeting
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 31, 2002

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