The company that powers the computer I write on is getting the kind of attention corporations loathe.
Idaho Power Co. and its three Hells Canyon dams on
the Snake River have been thrust into the center of a controversy
over a provision of the energy bill that would give power companies
more control over the rivers where they operate. Idaho Republican
Sen. Larry Craig champions the provision, which could save
hydroelectric companies billions of dollars and reduce the
public’s involvement in reviews conducted by the Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
Public involvement is
crucial, because license reviews only occur every 30 to 50 years,
and Idaho Power’s license is up in 2005. Like more than 400
other dams up for relicensing in the next 10 years, the Hells
Canyon dams face new restrictions, costs and conditions to balance
the turning of a profit from public resources -- our
Salmon still can’t swim through the high
dams that produce enough electricity to power my hometown of Boise,
offer flood control for people who live as far away as Portland and
create reservoirs that have become the most popular fishing holes
So with Sen. Craig pushing the legislation,
Idaho Power, one of the most powerful corporations in his home
state, must be the driving force behind it, right?
says Idaho Power spokesman Dennis Lopez. Idaho Power was part of
the national coalition that supported the legislation last year,
but now, it has backed off in its support.
has moved on and is seeking a new license on the traditional
track," Lopez says. Why, then, is Craig still pushing the
Because the bill remains important to the National
Hydropower Association, the organization that represents
hydroelectric-dam owners nationwide. They believe Craig’s
bill offsets the immense power given federal agencies in a reform
bill passed in 1986. It is true that federal agencies now have the
power to add mandatory conditions to a dam license, such as
requiring fish passage, without looking at the effects these added
costs would have on electricity output.
gives dam owners the ability to offer an alternative even after the
final license is proposed with the added conditions. If the
agencies reject the plan, the dam owners can appeal these
conditions. Craig argues that such review will streamline the
process, but it’s hard to see how adding time for the company
to come up with an alternative plan -- and then a new appeals
process -- is going to shorten the process.
serious about reducing the cost and time involved in relicensing
already have an alternative. FERC offers a collaborative process,
whereby dam owners, environmentalists, Indian tribes and federal
agencies get together early in the process and write a new license
Avista Corp., which produces power for parts
of Washington, Idaho and Montana, used this approach when it
relicensed its two hydroelectric dams on the Clark Fork, in
Montana. The company and its negotiating partners quickly came to
agreement on what the company would pay and how the dams would be
operated to offset the impact on the rivers and endangered fish
like bull trout. Once they reached a pact, FERC approved it, in
1999, two years before Avista’s existing licenses expired.
That saved the company money, cleared up its uncertainty and made
it partners with former opponents.
New Mexico Democratic
Sen. Jeff Bingaman has introduced an amendment based on a
compromise reached a year ago between the hydro industry and
environmentalists. The compromise allows the agencies to set the
required level of environmental protection, and then anyone -- the
company or environmentalists involved in the relicensing -- can
offer a cheaper alternative that is "no less protective" to the
environment, which must be adopted by the agencies. Craig’s
bill requires only the imprecise "adequate" protections.
Balance is in the eye of the beholder. But my guess is that Idaho
Power isn’t backing Craig’s bill because it knows even
its opponents don’t want the company to give up its three
dams -- at least not yet. So even though a widely run story in the
Washington Post made Idaho Power the "poster child" of dam
relicensing in the hard-nosed style of Sen. Craig, I think Idaho
Power’s management would rather be seen as playing by the
rules instead of trying to change them.
smart move for them politically, and it’s a good thing for
the democratic process. Advocates for salmon deserve a seat at the
negotiating table, especially when the time to talk takes decades