2002 Scorecard Vote
Hydropower dams can have highly detrimental impacts on rivers and the species that depend upon them. Blocking the passage of fish, causing wildly fluctuating water flows and leaving some rivers completely dry, hydropower dams have degraded some of our nation's most remarkable rivers and have left dozens of fish stocks at risk of extinction.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is responsible for issuing 30- to 50-year operating licenses to non-federal dams. Over the next 10 years, the licenses for more than 400 dams will expire, directly affecting 130 rivers nationwide for many years to come. Since many of these dams were originally licensed before the advent of modern environmental laws, FERC's relicensing process is an important vehicle for conserving and restoring some of America's most significant rivers, at relatively small cost to dam operators and operators. According to FERC's own analysis, the last ten years of relicensing have brought more than 250 dams into compliance with modern environmental laws and standards, while reducing the nation's total energy generation by less than 0.01 percent.
Of the 2,000 non-federal dams regulated by FERC, more than 400 are situated entirely or in part on federal lands. Consequently, Native American tribes and land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service are authorized to place conditions on these projects. For all dams regulated by FERC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service may require dam owners to construct and operate fish passageways that enable fish to move safely up and downstream.
Dam operators and owners often criticize the hydro-power relicensing process as costly, time-consuming and overly complex. In drafting the Senate energy bill (S. 517), Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) included provisions that would improve the efficiency of the process while maintaining environmental protections. But during floor debate of the energy bill, Senators Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Larry Craig (R-ID) went further, offering an amendment to replace the Bingaman language with provisions that would significantly weaken the environmental requirements for fish passage and federal lands protection. The amendment would place onerous, redundant procedural hurdles in front of federal natural resource agencies and grant dam owners an exclusive right to appeal if they deem environmental compliance too expensive.
In an effort to block the Nelson-Craig amendment, Senator Bingaman offered a substitute amendment to his original language, directing FERC to study ways of making the relicensing process more efficient. Senator Nelson then moved to table (kill) the substitute Bingaman amendment. On April 24, 2002, the Senate approved the Nelson motion by a vote of 54-43 (Senate roll call vote 81). NO is the pro-environment vote. The Nelson-Craig amendment was then amended by Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) to significantly reduce the time available to federal agencies to review dam licensing applications. The Nelson-Craig amendment, including the Smith language, later passed by voice vote. At press time the House and Senate conference on the energy package had not produced a final bill.