Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Improve the Hydropower Licensing Process, Restore Authority to Native American Tribes

May 10, 2023

U.S. Senators Daines and Cantwell lead effort to support river conservation, hydropower development and expand authority for Tribal Nations 

LeRoy Coleman, National Hydropower Association, 202-413-4605 
Amy Souers Kober, American Rivers, 503-708-1145 

Washington, D.C. (May 10, 2023) – Today, Conservation organizations, hydropower industry groups, and tribes applauded the bipartisan introduction of the Community and Hydropower Improvement Act to improve hydropower licensing, relicensing, and license surrender processes; additionally, the bill would strengthen environmental stewardship at the nation’s hydropower projects and expand principles of Tribal sovereignty in hydropower licensing. The bill, led by U.S. Senators Steve Daines (MT) and Maria Cantwell (WA), proposes amendments to the Federal Power Act to enhance cooperation, improve clarity, restore autonomy and self-determination to tribes, and retain states’ decision-making authority. In doing so, the bill would help address climate change, better protect the health of the nation’s rivers, expedite licensing of qualifying projects at non-powered dams and closed-loop pumped storage, ensure that mandatory license conditions submitted under sections 4(e) and 18 of the Federal Power Act address effects of the licensed project and provide some tribes long-sought authority over their lands and waters. 

 The package is supported by American Rivers, National Hydropower Association, Skokomish Indian Tribe, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, National Congress of American Indians, Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Union of Concerned Scientists, Hydropower Reform Coalition, California Outdoors, Friends of the River, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, American Whitewater, New England FLOW, Idaho Rivers United, Foothill Conservancy, Gravity Renewables, Rye Development, Natel Energy, and Nelson Energy. 

 The Federal Power Act (FPA), originally enacted in 1920, authorizes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to issue licenses to build, operate, maintain, and remove dams. The proposed updates would significantly improve cooperation among FERC and resource agencies in the hydropower licensing process. 

 Proposed changes include: 

  1. Improving coordination between FERC, federally recognized tribes, and resource agencies in the hydropower licensing, relicensing and license surrender processes 
  1. Ensuring that mandatory conditions submitted by certain federal agencies under sections 4(e) and 18 of the Federal Power Act address effects of the licensed project 
  1. Expanding the authority of federally recognized tribes with hydropower projects on their lands to protect natural resources and treaty-protected rights 
  1. Addressing climate change in the hydropower relicensing process 
  1. Improving the processes for surrendering licenses and removing non-operating dams 
  1. Providing opportunities to expedite licensing for powering existing non-powered dams and building closed-loop pumped storage hydropower projects 
  1. Improving the evaluation of projects during the licensing process 

  “This proposed package is an important next step in recognizing tribal sovereignty over tribal lands, and trust resources,” said Mary Pavel, partner at the firm Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, LLP and former staff director of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “Indian reservations and tribal trust resources have unduly borne the burden of hydroelectric power development in this country, and this package would give tribes a true seat at the table to ensure that this does not continue to happen.” 

 “This is a package of smart, strategic updates to make the process work better for everyone,” said Tom Kiernan, President of American Rivers. “Healthy rivers are essential to all life. By improving the process for licensing, relicensing and decommissioning dams, and by restoring autonomy and self-determination to tribes; we will  improve outcomes for rivers, the electric grid, and communities nationwide.” 

 “Hydropower is critical to achieving the goal of a resilient and reliable, zero-carbon electricity grid, and this bill seeks to protect and advance this critical energy resource by strengthening and expediting the FERC licensing process, better informing agency decision making, assuring environmental stewardship, and improving coordination among all relicensing participants,” said Malcolm Woolf, CEO & President of the National Hydropower Association. “The existing regulatory process is unnecessarily time consuming and expensive. With a historic number of projects coming up for relicensing and growing interest in developing new hydropower resources at existing non-powered dams and new closed-loop pumped storage, this bill will help safeguard and expand vital hydropower resources in an environmentally responsible manner, improve grid stability and security, and advance our trajectory towards a clean electricity grid. The hydropower industry applauds the leadership of Senators Daines and Cantwell for advancing this bipartisan effort.”

Recognizing the need to address climate change, conservation organizations, hydropower industry groups, and tribes worked together to develop a legislative package to address hydropower licensing.  The groups are convened under Stanford University’s Uncommon Dialogue on Hydropower, River Restoration and Public Safety, administered by the Woods Institute for the Environment, within Stanford’s Doerr School of Sustainability, and led by Dan W. Reicher. 

Last May, during a House Energy Subcommittee hearing on hydropower, lawmakers expressed bipartisan support for license reform:

  • Representative Tonko (D-NY) said, “I want to commend the Uncommon Dialogue participants for finding agreement on this proposal. Last time this committee considered hydropower license reform it did not start from a place of broad stakeholder consensus, and I truly believe that ultimately it hurt the legislative process as well as the final product, but these organizations have given us a strong foundation, and I hope they will continue to stand together and even expand the coalition as policy makers inevitably consider changes to the original proposal. Because hydropower is an incredibly important clean energy solution, one that has had strong bipartisan support on this committee, but like all energy infrastructure it needs to be developed and operated responsibly. An improved license process can indeed help ensure that.” 
  • Representative Pence (R-IN) expressed the need for an expedited licensing process to ensure hydropower projects remain economical, and said to his Subcommittee colleagues, “I would say to my peers across the aisle, come one, let’s figure out how to get this done and figure this out. You’re [Uncommon Dialogue participants] all doing a great job in working together as Ms. Pavel said.  I think we’ve ought to move on with this.”
  • Representative Peters (D-CA) said, “I remember in our last discussion on this topic that the permit process is so unwieldy and unbounded o and I hope we can do something that provides more certainty, better timelines, better results and frankly, clean energy with environmental protection is our goal.”
  • Representative Bucshon (R-IN) said, “I support the development and expansion of hydropower in the U.S. as a part of an “all of the above” energy strategy.” When asking Malcolm Woolf about what this proposal would do for adding hydropower generation to existing non-powered dams, Woolf explained that the license timeline would start once a facility submitted their NOI and FERC approved it, streamlining the process to two years from the moment the application is submitted, Bucshon responded, “That’s great, I would be for that.”