The new political activists10 June 1999
In its attempt to reform the hydroelectric relicensing process, the US industry is taking its battle directly to the politicians. At the National Hydropower Association’s annual conference, it became clear that political activism is yielding positive results. Suzanne Moxon reports
US capital city Washington, DC is the venue for the national-hydropower-association’s (NHA’s) annual conference, so it is not surprising that delegates brush shoulders with politicians. This year’s event was no exception. In its efforts to reform the relicensing process for hydro power facilities, NHA is keen to befriend as many politicians as possible. As Linda Church Ciocci, NHA’s executive director, said: ‘Political activism is the only way we will succeed. We’re at a critical stage now. We need to be the squeaky wheel. We need to speak, educate and make 2000 the year, the century, for hydro power.’
At the end of 1998, NHA and its other power industry allies, the Edison Electric Institute and the American Public Power Association, spearheaded a campaign for legislative reform of the time-consuming process which relicensing has become (see IWP&DC January 1999, pp24-25). As a consequence, Senator Larry Craig re-introduced Bill S740 into Congress on 25 March this year. Seeking to amend the Federal Power Act, the Bill aims to provide the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) with tools to improve the relicensing process, and requires resource agencies to consider the full effects of the conditions they place on a hydroelectric licence.
‘We want to make the relicensing process more user friendly,’ said Nils Johnson, director of Natural Resources and Environment at the Office of Senator Craig. ‘We have to try to find a way to make this a more efficient and balanced process.’
Johnson also commented on the fact that the House of Representatives was ‘very interested’ in Craig’s Bill — a sentiment which seems to be shared by other political figures. On the opening day of the conference, Congressman Edolphus Towns from New York state (pictured) announced his intention to introduce a companion bill to Senator Craig’s. ‘I’m often guilty of saying that reform is not necessarily an improvement,’ he said. ‘It can sometimes be negative but this Bill is an exception. It is a positive piece of legislation. The relicensing process needs reforming, and it needs reforming now.’
Currently in the process of collecting additional co-sponsors for the Bill before introducing it into the House, Towns spoke about his motivation in fighting for the proposed legislation. ‘New York state has over 4000MW of hydroelectric facilities due for relicensing in the next 15 years,’ he explained. He also pointed out that hydro power is the state’s second largest generation source, accounting for 25% of the energy mix, and is vital for keeping electric rates down and maintaining the reliability of the power system.
‘We need to protect the largest source of renewable energy generation in the US,’ Towns added. ‘Hydro will be at a distinct disadvantage in a competitive market, so we must reform the relicensing process if it is to compete. I simply believe that the government should work for the interests of the people and not against them. And without reform, there is no way that hydro relicensing can be beneficial to anyone.’
Referring to the cumbersome nature of the current relicensing process, and the fact that a consensus of opinion can be very difficult to achieve, Towns referred to the experiences of the Cushman project in Washington state. The project’s owners filed a relicensing application over 25 years ago but an acceptable licence has still not been issued (see article on page 26). ‘With the Cushman project,’ Towns said wryly, ‘the lawyers had a picnic. No, over 25 years, they had a banquet.’
Towns also re-iterated the fact that the eventual introduction of his Bill will show bi-partisan support for legislation. ‘It requires all of us to work together to make this Bill,’ he said enthusiastically. ‘The federal law made this mess and it’s up to Congress to fix it.’
Newly elected president of NHA, Mike Murphy, went on to explain that the Craig–Towns Bill does not repeal the mandatory conditioning authority of resource agencies — a matter which David Hayes from the Department of the Interior discussed in more detail.
‘We feel strongly, as you know, about the role of the resource agencies in the relicensing process,’ he said. ‘It goes way back to the Federal Power Act. One of our concerns is that the resource agencies’ piece of the relicensing process may be singled out, and may be the subject of inappropriate, disproportionate burdens in terms of the relicensing process as a whole. Yes, resource agencies play an important part, but they are not the only factor involved.’
Hayes went on to explain that the hydro power industry has raised the issue of the effectiveness of resource agencies’ work. Consequently, the Department of the Interior is now taking an internal look at how it can co-ordinate its workload more effectively with other agencies, and is also working on the newly established Inter-Agency Task Force (see panel below).
‘We recognise that the next ten years will be a watershed in this area and that the relicensing process has to move forward in a sensible, practical and conditioned way where our concerns are brought to the table, where there will be forthright dialogue and where we will all try to work things out.’
Another government agency which has been working hard over the past year is the Office of Hydropower Licensing at FERC. Carol Sampson, who was only appointed as director of this department last year, was congratulated for the way she has instigated an openness with the industry. She gave an update on the alternative relicensing process, which encourages communication and even agreement among all stakeholders before a licence application is made (see panel).
‘The advantage of the alternative relicensing process is that it is faster and less contentious,’ says Sampson. ‘Last year we saw an increased use of this process with invigorating attention being paid to issues and problems associated with it. From this, new and improved relationships and new strategies have evolved.
‘I worked in the resource agencies when the Class of ‘93 relicences went though, and I can tell you that nowhere near as much attention was placed on relicensing than is currently going on at the resource agencies.’
Overall Sampson seemed quite pleased with the progress which had been made over the past year by the resource agencies, FERC and the hydro power industry.
‘Last year I told you to go and talk with the resource agencies and other participants in the relicensing process,’ she addressed the conference delegates. ‘As a result of this we have seen a marked change. A new understanding is
emerging from rich dialogue over key issues which are facing us all. I’m really optimistic,’ she said. ‘I’m optimistic about what I see as a momentum towards positive change.’
Change seems to be forever embracing US hydro power. And, although at times such change is beyond the industry’s control, it is beginning to harness this, using it to its own advantage. The recent exclusion of hydro power from the renewable energy portfolio has been a temporary knock-back for the industry, but it remains determined to see the relicensing bills through to legislation.
NHA remains ‘truly optimistic’ that its efforts will result in positive changes to the licensing process over the next couple of years. The industry still has a mountain to climb in its battle to improve relicensing and put hydro power on a competitive par with other power generators, but things have certainly improved over the past few years.
‘Five years ago,’ said John Devine, last year’s NHA president, ‘hydro power issues were not even on the radar screen in Washington. But now we are expanding our reach and visibility.’