Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Guest editorial: Transparency, good faith, public participation needed to solve energy dilemma

Recent grass-roots action by Homer Electric Association cooperative members which resulted in the HEA Board’s decision to contract a third-party, fact-based Power Supply Study is a shining example of why public participation is essential in influencing responsible regional energy policy, including study and development of renewable energy projects.

Unfortunately, HEA, doing business as Kenai Hydro LLC, is aggressively pursuing hydroelectric projects proposed for Kenai River headwaters near Moose Pass and Cooper Landing, which do not represent good renewable energy policy or good public policy.

HEA widely and deliberately misrepresented the projects as “low-impact” to obtain public money and to defuse legitimate public criticism.

HEA funding requests mischaracterizing the projects as low-impact resulted in over $1 million in public funding from the Denali Commission, Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority/Alaska Energy Authority, and the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee.

Project information distributed to the public, HEA cooperative members, and state and federal agencies prominently displayed the Low Impact Hydropower Institute logo. At meetings in Cooper Landing and Moose Pass, HEA stated its commitment to develop the projects, as much as possible, in compliance with LIHI criteria.

The truth is LIHI does not support construction of any new hydropower facilities. LIHI criteria only apply to existing hydro facilities built before 1998, only evaluate the compliance of those existing facilities with conditions of their Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses, and are not applicable to conceptual projects. HEA’s association of LIHI’s logo and low-impact criteria with these projects was not only irrelevant, but a disingenuous attempt to hoodwink agencies and the public into believing these projects would substantially meet independently established, low-impact environmental criteria.

Preliminary permits issued by FERC describe construction of dams of up to 10 feet high and 200 feet wide. HEA has publicly rationalized the need for over eight miles of new road construction, destruction of existing hiking trails and dewatering of Kenai River tributary streams providing important fish spawning and rearing habitat.

HEA continues promoting these projects despite having been informed that the projects, as proposed, do not conform to important public policy and resource management provisions of the:
  • Chugach Forest Plan;
  • Inventoried Roadless Area Rule;
  • Kenai River Comprehensive Management Plan;
  • Kenai Area Plan;
  • Kenai Peninsula Borough Comprehensive Plan; and
  • Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s management intent for the Kenai River watershed.

The timing and amounts of funding, limited state oversight and overly elaborate designs based on insufficient data that do not comply with existing resource management plans and policy, especially for the Crescent and Ptarmigan lakes projects, has raised concern that HEA engaged in a classic “bait and switch” scheme. Local residents fear that public money ostensibly allocated to the Crescent and Ptarmigan lakes projects was spent improperly to promote the Grant Lake/Falls Creek project, and that overall, HEA wasted public money to pursue, at best, marginally feasible projects where the potential impacts far outweigh the possible benefits.

Despite its use of public funding and the fact that these projects rely totally on development and use of public lands and waters, HEA is attempting to limit process transparency and public participation in the FERC licensing, National Environmental Policy Act, mandatory conditioning and permitting processes for these projects.

HEA has stated it plans to seek FERC permission to use the Traditional Licensing Process to authorize the projects. According to officials in FERC’s Washington, D.C., offices, the TLP provides the least process transparency and opportunities for public participation. The TLP is driven and controlled by the project proponent, requires few public meetings, and involves the public late in the process after many decisions have already been made.

The Integrated Licensing Process provides greater process transparency and opportunities for public participation. FERC implemented the ILP in 2005 as its default process, in part, to correct well-documented public participation and process transparency deficiencies associated with the TLP. The ILP involves the public and discloses existing project information early in the process. In addition to soliciting written public response and comments, the ILP provides for a comprehensive series of public meetings. Under the ILP, environmental study plans are developed in coordination with the NEPA process to help ensure public and agency concerns identified during NEPA scoping are addressed through collection and analysis of pertinent data.

To address the high costs and uncertain future of electrical power generated from declining reserves of Cook Inlet natural gas, industry, government and the public need to work together in a good-faith effort to carefully study and prudently develop renewable energy projects. Full public participation in a transparent process is necessary to ensure that public funding and development of public lands, waters and resources results in an appropriate balance between public and private interests, and that renewable energy projects are in line with reasonable social and environmental impacts that are fully disclosed.

Mike Cooney is a forestry consultant and hunting guide who has worked in natural resource management for more than 30 years. He is a resident of Moose Pass.

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