Hydropower stymied by multiple agency reviews

A single federal agency should oversee permitting applications for relicensing of existing hydropower plants, a U.S. House committee was told during a June 26 hearing.

The U.S. House committee on Natural Resources was told by hydropower advocates that a cumbersome and sometimes conflicting array of federal oversight of relicensing power stations, in which even one objecting agency can effectively kill a project that has been generating electricity for 50 years.

The House Natural Resources Oversight Committee held the hearing “Mandatory Conditioning Requirements on Hydropower: How Federal Resource Agencies are Driving Up Electricity Costs and Decreasing the Original Green Energy.” The nation has 12 GW of untapped hydropower potential, according to the Energy Information Agency.

Chaired by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.,  whose district produces the most hydroelectricity of any Congressional district in the U.S., the  hearing concerned only dams not on federal waterways  but are nonetheless been under federal purview since President Teddy Roosevelt’s time. Such dams account for one-half of the hydropower supply.

“The relicensing process should not be a hostage-taking opportunity for federal agencies to demand a ransom to be paid to fund their wish lists, or for federal agencies to push a covert dam removal agenda by imposing conditions so onerous that hydropower licenses are surrendered instead of renewed,” Hastings said.

The panel was told that the process took an average of five years and costs millions in compliance that make operators drop relicensing altogether rather than continue a burdensome regulatory review or expend compliance costs that would make the station uneconomic.

“Designating one agency as having exclusive siting authority would not usurp the decisional authority of the mandatory conditioning agencies. Rather it recognizes that one agency has been vested with the authority to determine whether the proposal is in the public interest while others have been vested with authorities that go only to some aspect of the project,” said Mark Robinson, principal of JMR Energy Infra, LLC and a former aquatic ecologist at FERC.

The witnesses seemed to settle on FERC as the likeliest place for one agency to act as a clearinghouse for all other required reviews.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 tried to quicken the process by creating trial-type hearings for applicants to challenge some regulatory mandates, but that has failed to expedite licensing reviews.

“Knowing that the applicant must affirmatively pursue a trial type hearing and that the agencies have an opportunity to provide modified conditions later in the FERC process places the conditioning agencies in a superior position during any negotiations. The playing field is significantly tilted in favor of the conditioning agencies,” Robinson added.

One such scenario was related by John Grubich of the Public Utility District Number 1 in Okanogan County in Washington State. He explained his frustration at reviving 9-MW Enloe hydro project that existed from 1906 to 1958, when it was mothballed.

The federal Bureau of Land Management is imposing environmental conditions, on which it must sign off because the project needs a right-of-way over its land.

“These recommendations would accomplish BLM programs and objectives that are not directly related to project impacts. Enloe is a very small project, with a total budget of approximately $30.9 million, of which about $2.4 million is committed to environmental mitigation,” Grubich said. BLM’s program would increase total project cost by 20%, he added.

“The BLM’s many additional recommendations would restore recommendations previously considered and rejected by FERC in its EA (environmental assessment). FERC received these recommendations from BLM at least twice, explicitly considered each of them in its EA, and rejected them,” Grubich added.