Group Says New U.S. Energy Bill Will Harm Rivers

Oct 27, 2016

The Connecticut River Watershed Council says a new energy bill would limit environmental groups from taking part in the federal relicensing of hydroelectric dams.

The U.S. House and Senate both passed a version of the energy bill, which supporters say would modernize the country's energy policies.

The bill aims to help transform the nation's energy infrastructure away from coal and oil, and toward more renewable sources.

But a provision that would simplify the regulatory process for hydroelectric dams has the watershed council worried.

Connecticut River Steward David Deen says the bill gives preferential treatment to power companies, at the expense of states and environmental groups.

"Their definition of a streamlined process was to remove the environmental protections, and to remove the  responsibility to have to meet recreation needs that the local communities define," Deen says. "Those projects are using our water and they're using it for private gain. They really have a responsibility to us, as river users, and to the river itself."

The Connecticut River Watershed Council is currently participating in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, relicensing of three dams on the Connecticut River.

Deen says many of the large dams in the country were built decades ago, before many modern environmental laws were passed.

And because the FERC hydroelectric license can last 50 years, Deen says it's important that groups like the Connecticut River Watershed Council continue to take part in the relicensing.

"For a dam that is coming up for relicensing in 2017, it is entirely possible that it was last licensed in 1967, during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson," Deen says. "These dams have never been subject to the Electricity Consumers Protection Act, the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act."

But the National Hydropower Association says the bill is needed to update a cumbersome regulatory process.

“The bipartisan provisions included in the bills seek to add predictability and increase coordination and timeliness of the process - all while protecting environmental values," executive director Linda Church Ciocci said in a prepared statement.

Vermont Rep. Peter Welch and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders are both members of the committee working on the energy bill in Congress.

“As we transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy future, I believe that hydro, done right, can play an important role," Sanders said.  "But we must do so in a way that is environmentally sensitive.  That is why I am working hard to ensure that if there are hydroelectric provisions in the final energy bill, they improve our renewable hydro energy resources while protecting the environment, water quality and recreational opportunities.”

Updated 10/28/16 10:00 a.m. This story was updated with a statement from Sen. Bernie Sanders.