- A proposal to reform the hydropower licensing process, brought forward by a coalition of industry, environmental and tribal groups, found support among most members of the U.S. House Energy Subcommittee during a Thursday morning hearing.
- Although Congress passed reforms in 2018 intended to expedite the review of certain hydropower projects with minimal environmental impacts, those reforms have not been implemented by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, representatives of the coalition testified on Thursday.
- While members of the coalition and the House subcommittee generally agreed on the need for provisions to streamline the license review process, disagreement arose around how to revise the environmental reviews associated with hydropower projects.
The fruits of a three-year effort dubbed the “Uncommon Dialog” found some common ground between unlikely allies during Thursday’s Congressional subcommittee meeting — including consensus among politicians from both sides of the political spectrum.
Begun in 2018, the Uncommon Dialog sought to bring together diverse stakeholders to discuss potential resolutions to climate change and ongoing conflicts around hydropower. What has emerged, the coalition testified on Thursday, is a series of legislative recommendations backed by the hydropower industry, environmental interest groups, and tribal governments.
At the center of this package of reforms are several measures intended to expedite a licensing process the coalition said threatens the environment, tribal sovereignty and the nation’s ability to achieve its renewable energy goals.
“New and existing hydropower is at risk because of this Byzantine licensing process,” Malcolm Woolf, president and CEO of the National Hydropower Association, said. Obtaining or renewing a hydropower license can cost upwards of $10 million and may span a decade or longer — exceeding the typical timeframe for permitting a nuclear power plant, he said. As a result, he said, a growing number of hydropower operators have sought to relinquish their licenses rather than attempt to navigate the regulatory process.
“The nation is at the crest of a new wave of relicensing,” Woolf said, with 45% of the nation’s hydropower fleet up for renewal by 2045. “Reform is urgent. We disagree on lots of issues, but we’ve been able to build an integrated licensing reform package that has broad support.”
The proposed package would clarify specific situations in which the expedited review process created in 2018 would apply — a bid to improve utilization of an existing reform that Woolf testified has not been implemented by FERC. The one project to apply to use the expedited time frame, he said, was found to be ineligible.
The coalition also seeks to designate FERC as the lead agency on hydroelectric license reviews, which would begin with a multi-agency consultation process that would establish the scope and timeline for the review at the onset of the process. Tribal nations would be included as an independent government body at the beginning of this process, rather than being represented by the Department of the Interior.
Mary Pavel, an attorney for the Skokomish Indian Tribe and a member of the Tribe, held throughout the hearing that giving the Tribes a “full seat” at the table from the beginning of the licensing process would reduce review times and cut down on litigation. She spoke of her own tribe’s experience with Tacoma Power’s Cushman Hydroelectric Project, which she said resulted in a lawsuit after the Skokomish Tribe was unable to get the attention of their tribal trustee. Had the Tribe been involved from the beginning, she said, the project likely could have come to the same resolution imposed by the court — but without the lawsuit.
“What the global settlement [stemming from the lawsuit] achieved is what would have happened if we had been at the table,” she said, “but it wouldn’t have taken an additional 30 years.”
The proposed reforms also include the codification of judicial law limiting the scope of the licensing review process, and add a requirement that FERC consider the potential impacts of climate change during the review process. These provisions, however, were not supported by all members of the coalition, including Trout Unlimited President and CEO Chris Wood, who described the proposal as underdeveloped. These provisions also drew fire from some conservative members of the subcomittee such as Representative Jeff Duncan, R-South Carolina, who accused the Uncommon Dialog process of trying to shut down fossil fuels.
However, Woolf testified that the hydroelectric industry supported these environmental provisions. And Tom Kiernan, CEO of American Rivers, held that the entire package of reforms needed to pass together, without modification, to maintain stakeholder consensus.
“This group has had ... a lot of uncomfortable discussions,” he said. “We’ve built an understanding and we have created a holistic proposal that is knit together where we think there is a synergy in this language. A package is a package. It holds together, and if there are significant changes to it then that balance is lost.”
Ultimately, lawmakers from both political parties expressed a desire to see the package move forward.
“Let’s figure out how to get this done,” Rep. Greg Pence, R-Indiana, said as the meeting came to a close. “I think we ought to move forward with this.”