U.S. Senate passes Energy Policy Modernization Act

Lisa Murkowski

Bipartisan energy legislation approved by an overwhelming 85-12 vote by the U.S. Senate could have a significant impact on the hydropower sector.

The "Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015", introduced in July by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., includes provisions that would impact both the conventional and marine energy sectors.

Amongst its measures included for conventional hydro are a number of improvements to the hydropower project licensing process -- primarily as it pertains to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and an extension that incentivizes hydro production and efficiency improvements under Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) sections 242 and 243.

Specifically, the bill:

  • Designates the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) as the lead agency to set a binding schedule and coordinate all needed federal authorizations in order to address hydropower permitting backlogs. Further authorizes the Chairman of CEQ to resolve any interagency disputes to ensure timely participation and decision making by the resource agencies;
  • Sets forth a Sense of Congress that hydropower is a renewable resource for purposes of all federal programs;
  • Amends the federal purchasing requirement in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) to include all forms of hydropower and raises the federal purchase requirement for renewable energy from 7.5% to 15%;
  • Requires a resource agency's mandatory condition or prescription to have a "clear and direct nexus" to the actual project works;
  • Extends preliminary permit terms from three years to four years, and lengthens the subsequent potential FERC extension from two years to four years;
  • Directs FERC to compile and make public a comprehensive collection of studies and data; to use existing studies in individual licensing proceedings, and to ensure that studies required for federal authorizations are not duplicated;
  • Requires the concurrent preparation of biological opinions and starts the clock for water quality certifications when the request for certification is determined to be complete;
  • Requires FERC to maintain an official consolidated record of a licensing proceeding, including the contributions made by other federal agencies
  • Requires a resource agency to demonstrate, in writing, that it has met the "equal consideration" requirement when imposing mandatory conditions or prescriptions;
  • Makes a number of improvements to the Trial-Type Hearing (TTH) process, including requiring FERC's existing Administration Law Judges (ALJ) to handle the TTG;
  • Extends the time limit for a TTH from 90 to 120 days, and allows an ALJ to stay the TTF for 120 days for settlement discussions; and
  • Directs FERC to establish a voluntary pilot program covering at least one region to consider a region-wide approach to hydropower licensing.

Further stipulations in the bill increase support for ocean, tidal and wave energy by amending both EPAct and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) to authorize the National Marine Renewable Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Centers to participate in demonstration projects, support in-water testing, support arrays of technology and serve as information clearinghouses.

Passage of the bill takes place on the eve of the National Hydropower Association's Waterpower Week in Washington, at which Sen. Cantwell will serve as a keynote speaker in the event's opening plenary session.

The bill shares a number of similarities with House Resolution 8, which passed the House in December by a 249-174 vote.

Though the two pieces of legislation largely overlap, each bill will now move to a conference committee that includes both chambers before being passed as a final bill to President Barack Obama for enactment.

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