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Congress and Stakeholders Find Consensus on Hydropower Licensing Reform

Diving brief:

  • A proposal to reform the hydropower licensing process, put forward by a coalition of industry, environmental and tribal groups, found support from most members of the U.S. Energy Subcommittee at a hearing on Thursday morning .
  • Although Congress passed reforms in 2018 aimed at expediting the review of certain hydroelectric projects with minimal environmental impacts, those reforms were not implemented by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, testimony testified Thursday. coalition representatives.
  • While coalition and House subcommittee members generally agreed on the need for provisions to streamline the permit review process, disagreement arose over how to revise the environmental reviews associated with hydroelectric projects.

Overview of the dive:

The fruits of a three-year effort dubbed the ‘unusual dialogue’ found common ground between unlikely allies at Thursday’s congressional subcommittee meeting – including a consensus between politicians on both sides of the political spectrum.

Launched 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 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 speed up a licensing process that the coalition says threatens the environment, tribal sovereignty and the nation’s ability to meet its energy goals. renewable.

“New and existing hydropower are at risk because of this byzantine licensing process,” said Malcolm Woolf, president and CEO of the National Hydropower Association. Obtaining or renewing a hydropower license can cost up to $10 million and can take a decade or more — exceeding the typical time frame to license a nuclear plant, he said. As a result, he said, an increasing number of hydroelectric operators have sought to surrender their licenses rather than attempt to navigate the regulatory process.

“The nation is at the peak of a new wave of license renewals,” Woolf said, with 45% of the national hydro fleet due for renewal by 2045. “Reform is urgently needed. We disagree on many points, but we have been able to craft an integrated package of licensing reforms that enjoys broad support. »

The proposed package would clarify the specific situations in which the expedited review process created in 2018 would apply — an attempt to improve the use of an existing reform that Woolf testified was not implemented by FERC . The only project to apply to use the expedited deadline, he said, was deemed ineligible.

The coalition is also seeking to designate FERC as the lead agency for hydro license reviews, which would begin with a multi-agency consultation process that would set the scope and timeline for the review early in the process. Tribal nations would be included as an independent government body at the start of this process, rather than being represented by the Home Office.

Skokomish Indian Tribe attorney and tribal member Mary Pavel argued throughout the hearing that giving the tribes a “full seat” at the table early in the licensing process would cut delays in the process. review and reduce litigation. She spoke of her own tribe’s experience with Tacoma Power’s Cushman hydroelectric project, which she says resulted in a lawsuit after the Skokomish tribe could not get the attention of their tribal administrator. If the tribe had been involved from the start, she said, the project likely could have resulted in the same court-ordered resolution — but without the trial.

“What is the Global Settlement [stemming from the lawsuit] reached is what would have happened if we had been at the table,” she said, “but it wouldn’t have taken another 30 years.

The proposed reforms also include codifying judicial law limiting the scope of the license review process and adding a requirement that FERC must consider potential climate change impacts 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 called the proposal underdeveloped. These provisions also drew fire from some conservative subcommittee members, such as Rep. 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, argued that the reform package must be passed together, without modification, to maintain stakeholder consensus.

“This group had… a lot of uncomfortable discussions,” he said. “We’ve built an understanding and we’ve created a holistic proposition that’s woven together where we think there’s a synergy in this language. A package is a package. It holds together, and if there are significant changes, that balance is lost.

Ultimately, lawmakers from both political parties expressed a desire to see the package move forward.

“Let’s see how to get there,” Rep. Greg Pence, R-Indiana, said at the end of the meeting. “I think we should go ahead with that.”