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Hydro Relicensing Redux: Will Dams Be Saved?

Fortnightly Magazine - April 1 2000

whether FERC has the authority to decommission dams is still heatedly debated.

In 1997, FERC made the precedent-setting decision to deny Edwards Dam operators their relicensing request, and ordered the dam removed from the Kennebec River in Maine. Sens. Craig and Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) both have argued that FERC has no legal authority to remove dams.

In a Senate hearing last year, Sen. Murkowski said, "I am concerned that this administration as a policy does not support hydropower. The administration supports the removal of dams. The administration does not consider hydro renewable."

But in that same hearing, Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, deputy assistant administrator, National Marine Fisheries Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said that dam removal is an issue only in projects where there can be broad consensus that it is the best option. FERC has shared that opinion.

In an order of rehearing, the FERC explicitly stated "license denial and dam removal will, in most proceedings, not be considered a reasonable alternative by anyone ."

In addition, the report stated "dams, and the reservoirs they create, usually serve a variety of non-power public purposes, such as flood control, irrigation, and recreation. Moreover, ...removing a dam can have significant adverse environmental impacts." - R.S.

Furthermore, Fahlund claims the industry is unwilling to share economic information with environmental agencies. And if regulators were to consider economics in relicensing, Fahlund asks what the standard should be.

"Let's suppose that they did consider economic information; are they supposed to be increasing profitability or just making sure that they are in the black?" he asks.

In the end, Fahlund says, the economics of a project is a private interest and should not be balanced against a public good.

"It should not matter whether the project is viable or not viable in my mind. If those are the needed prescriptions in order to protect the environment, then they should be included in the license," he says.

The burden of proof should be placed not on the agencies, but with the industry, according to Fahlund. He cites FERC testimony stating that of 143 projects licensed in 1993, the deadline has been missed seven times over the objection of participants. He believes the best process for hydro relicensing is the one in place.

Of course, this view does not sit well with Sen. Craig.

"The problem with the extreme preservationist community today is that they are not willing to accept the idea that we, over the last 100 years, have modified a variety of our rivers systems for flood control, slack water transportation, and hydro.

"I doubt that we can ever return rivers to pre-European man's presence.... We have transformed our environment and I accept that. There are some that can't accept that," says Craig. "My answer to them is go find a cave and live with a candle because government ought to be out making these operations as environmentally benign as possible, but to recognize the importance of this energy base and promote, not restrict it or kill it.

"I say that as cautiously and constructively as