Traditional, yet not — Kenai Hydro requests nonstandard licensing process

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Along with submitting preliminary plans to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a joint Grant Lake-Falls Creek hydroelectric project in the Kenai Mountains near Moose Pass, Kenai Hydro has requested to use an alternate licensing process that would govern the process from here.

Kenai Hydro submitted a request to use the Traditional Licensing Process in early August and had its request approved Sept. 15, with the stipulation that it conduct scoping early in the process.

The Traditional Licensing Process is an ancestor of the commission’s Integrated Licensing Process, which was adopted in 2005 as FERC’s default process.

According to FERC, the integrated process “is intended to streamline the Commission’s licensing process by providing a predictable, efficient and timely licensing process that continues to ensure adequate resource protections.” Those efficiencies come through three principles: “Early issue identification and resolution of studies needed to fill information gaps, avoiding studies post-filing; Integration of other stakeholder permitting process needs; and established time frames to complete process steps for all stakeholders, including the Commission.”

In the traditional process, the applicant has more leeway to steer the process, and FERC doesn’t have much involvement until the application is filed. In its request to use the traditional process, Kenai Hydro noted that it would prefer the flexibility of the traditional process, rather than the set timelines of the integrated process.

“(Kenai Hydro) must effectively manage the schedule of its licensing, studies and engineering/design efforts to allow the Project to be constructed and power brought on line in an expeditious and cost effective fashion. Flexibility in the regulatory requirements is necessary to allow (Kenai Hydro), in consultation with agencies and other stakeholders, to make adjustments to the timeframes of various components of the licensing process to best utilize available time prior to expiration of the preliminary permit. This flexibility is lacking in the ILP, which is generally designed to complete pre-filing consultation within the window of time from the (Notice of Intent) to the expiration of an existing license,” states the request letter.

The letter also states that the traditional process would be suitable because of the project’s relatively small size, which in part means field studies won’t take much time.

“Due to the limited geographic scope of the potential Project impacts, a relatively straight-forward study program is envisioned to generate the needed information to support the development of the license application,” the request states. “… Given the productive exchange and agreement from agencies and stakeholders to date on the reconnaissance level studies and the collective understanding of the relative scope of potential impacts that need to be studied, (Kenai Hydro) does not anticipate significant disputes over studies.”

The traditional process is expected to be less costly, as well, “without the significant process-related time burden of the ILP,” the request states.

“… Substantial efficiencies are expected from utilizing the TLP with the communications protocol that is proposed due to the flexibility that will exist for (Kenai Hydro), in consultation with agencies and other stakeholders, to make adjustments to deadlines and timeframes where possible to accommodate differences among resource areas and study proposals. The TLP allows (Kenai Hydro) and stakeholders to focus on gathering and reviewing field data in the most efficient manner during the short study seasons available in Alaska, rather than being tied to the strict timelines of the ILP.”

Kenai Hydro recognizes opposition voiced against its proposed projects and added a communications process that it proposes to use along with the traditional licensing process to address concerns.

“(Kenai Hydro) understands that there is public interest in the proposed Project area and that there are some parties who do not support hydroelectric power development in the area overall. (Kenai Hydro) believes that use of the TLP as outlined … allowing for consultation per the consultation protocol outlined in the (Pre-Application Document), will provide for the most effective process for engaging interested parties and agencies in analysis of the proposed Project.”

The process Kenai Hydro proposed to supplement the Traditional Licensing Process includes:

  • “Working with agencies and other stakeholders on the scheduling of meetings and conference calls,
  • “Providing opportunities for the review of draft study plans and study reports and addressing those comments in final plans/reports, and
  • “Allowing for more than the minimum 30 days for review of significant documents when possible without jeopardizing the overall project schedule.”

In the public comments filed with FERC about Kenai Hydro’s request to use the traditional process, the U.S. Forest Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Sierra Club and Alaska Center for the Environment noted the importance of doing project scoping early in the process so studies can be developed in a timely manner and results can be properly analyzed.

The Sierra Club and Mike Cooney, a Moose Pass resident, also expressed concern that the traditional process doesn’t allow enough public involvement to voice concerns. The Kenaitze Indian Tribe also filed comments, but expressed no opposition to the traditional process request.

FERC approved the use of the traditional process with the caveat that Kenai Hydro conduct early scoping to address agencies’ concerns.

That’s not enough protection, says Cooney and other residents of the area. They prefer the integrated process.

“It appears that the ILP best protects the public because there are discreet deadlines. FERC is involved and administers that process. They participate directly,” said Bob Baldwin, president of the Friends of Cooper Landing. “With the TLP it’s totally driven by the applicant and FERC is just kind of an administrative bystander doing clerical work, so to speak, until it actually gets to some point of decision. We prefer the ILP because it involves FERC directly and is a better process for the public.”

Baldwin said FERC involvement throughout the process is especially important in this instance because this is, as he sees it, the first controversial hydro project in Alaska with which the FERC will be dealing. Other recent FERC-permitted hydro projects in Southeast Alaska didn’t involve streams that support anadromous fish and didn’t generate much public opposition, Baldwin said.

“The applicant and FERC and all the agencies have never encountered this kind of new license in Alaska that’s going to be as controversial as we can make it. Nobody really knows what’s going to come out of choosing one or the other of the processes, we just feel the most responsible process for protecting the public interest is the ILP,” he said.“We feel we have a better chance of a level playing field with the ILP because, for one thing, frankly, the applicant favors the TLP, and that’s a flag for us. They’re interested in minimizing controversy and costs, and we aren’t so interested in minimizing controversy and costs, so we’ve asked FERC in pretty straight plain talk to protect the public interest and become directly involved.”

Baldwin voices a strong feeling of distrust for Kenai Hydro in this project, in part because Kenai Hydro doesn’t have experience building hydroelectric projects, and because neither Kenai Hydro nor its consultants are primarily interested in protecting the environment.

“Nobody in Kenai Hydro, Homer Electric, CIRI or all of the daisy chain of shell companies that lead clear back to France. There is zero hydroelectrical development experience in all of that group,” Baldwin said.

“And I’ve had a career as a consultant. I understand very well what those roles are,” he said. “These consultants were not hired to tell their applicants — their employers — and the public what might be not nice about these projects. Absolutely not. You won’t see those kinds of words. Consultants in this circumstance are hired to enable the licensing of the proposals. They’re mercenaries to accomplish that.”

Cooney, of Moose Pass, said he’s already been concerned about the level of public involvement in Kenai Hydro’s process to date. To him, that doesn’t bode well for its use of the traditional licensing process.

“When I started out being involved in these projects, I had the idea I would maintain an open mind, based on my interest in developing renewable energy sources, that Kenai Hydro will work with the communities in a collaborative way. In such a way to address community concerns and protect local values while also producing new electricity. My experience has been frustrating. My sense is they want to just jam this down our throats. They don’t seem to be interested in a collaborative process,” Cooney said.

As an example, he said he, as a member of the general public, wasn’t invited to attend a Kenai Hydro technical working group meeting to create study plans regarding fish, in-stream flow, water quality and hydrology for the Grant Lake project. Interested agency and stakeholder group representatives were invited to the meeting, scheduled for March 13 in Moose Pass and conducted by Kenai Hydro consultant HDR Alaska. Invited representatives included Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, the Kenai Watershed Forum, Friends of Cooper Landing and others. Teleconferencing was available, but in-person participation was limited to 25, according to an e-mail Cooney had about the meeting.

Cooney got a response from HDR that Kenai Hydro didn’t object to his observing the meeting if space were available. Cooney said he doesn’t see why technical working group meetings weren’t planned to include and accommodate open public observation, rather than just invited representatives of pre-signed-up organizations.

Creating study plans is an important step in the process, he said, and one the public should be able to weigh in on to ensure their concerns are being addressed. After plans are set and studies conducted, it’s too late for residents to comment on what conditions and possible impacts they think should be looked at, Cooney said.

Joe Gallagher, HEA spokesman, stated in an e-mail that future technical work groups will be open to the public.

“While the public is encouraged to participate, participants are expected to bring some expertise to bear on the subject matter,” the e-mail stated. “The purpose of technical work groups is not to educate or inform the public, rather, it is for experts and keenly interested individuals to review and refine the proposed study plans to ensure that the key issues are identified and that resources and issues will be studied to acceptable industry standard practice. Prior to establishing the technical work groups, the resource-specific study plans will be presented to the public and public review and comment will be requested.”

Cooney’s sense that Kenai Hydro is not involving the public as much as it could led him to start a poster and postcard campaign this summer. He Hydro DAMn shame poster WebHydro DAMn shame postertook his 6-year-old daughter fishing on Carter Lake, where she caught her second-ever fish in life, a 14-inch rainbow trout. With funding from sympathetic organizations, he used a print of the fish to create posters and 1,000 postcards meant to raise awareness of the Kenai Hydro projects. He hung up posters around the Moose Pass and Cooper Landing area and distributed postcards, all but about 100 of them, that people could send to HEA voicing their opposition to the projects.

Quartz Creek outside Cooper Landing in August proved a great spot to visit with fishermen, inform them of the projects and distribute postcards. Cooney said his main point was the projects are planned on fish-supporting streams contributing to the headwaters of the Kenai River system.

“That was the emphasis of the postcards to begin with, was about fish and the ability to have good recreational fisheries, which the local economy depends on heavily in Moose Pass and, particularly, Cooper Landing,” Cooney said.

“I think there’s a problem, at least as I see it, a restriction of interaction with the public and the fact that a lot of people don’t know about these projects,” Cooney said. “And if they did, I bet there would be a lot more controversy and pressure not to do them. About 95 percent of the people contacted were unaware of the projects, but were adamantly opposed to them.

“I think in the course of a month I contacted probably about 100 people, only one person out of the 100 didn’t want to send a postcard in.”

Gallagher said HEA has received 129 post cards to date.

Kenai Hydro has an extensive Web site (www.kenaihydro.com) with an archive of public documents and schedule of upcoming events, studies and meetings, has held public meetings about the projects wherein interested agencies and stakeholders were invited to participate further, has publicly advertised the comment periods for its Pre-Application Document and request to use traditional licensing, and maintains an extensive contact list to which it sends announcements. That’s above and beyond what was required in the preliminary stage of the permitting process, according to Gallagher.

“Now begins the formal process whereby the public comments are required. Until this time minimal consultation was required to inform the (Notice of Intent and Pre-Application Document), but Kenai Hydro has gone above and beyond what was required by holding public meetings very early on in order to get a sense from the public what the issues associated with these projects might be,” Gallagher stated in an e-mail.

Those efforts are either required, or done basically to make Kenai Hydro look like it’s interested in having an open process, Baldwin said. But he does not think that’s the case.

“Homer Electric themselves, they have spun this effort from the start as low impact. That would be our biggest objection at this point, as far as the public information process goes — it’s been disingenuous. We’re confident the Homer Electric Board does not understand what management is getting them into, and that also goes for the CIRI board,” Baldwin said. “What they’re trying to do is look progressive and playing on public sentiment. That’s my professional assessment of it.”

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