FERC hydropower and successive preliminary permits

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

U.S. federal regulators can give a preliminary permit to the developer of a proposed hydropower projects -- but won't give out a successive permit unless the developer demonstrates it acted diligently under its prior permit.

Developers of proposed hydropower projects in the U.S. can apply for a preliminary permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  During its term -- up to three years, according to the Federal Power Act -- a preliminary permit for a hydropower project does not authorize construction, but gives the permittee first priority to apply for a license for the project.  This exclusivity allows the permittee to study the site, communicate with stakeholders, and develop the information necessary to support a license application.  It also gives the permittee something of a "reservation" for the site during its term.  In exchange, the permittee must submit periodic reports on the status of its outreach efforts and studies.

Sections 4(f) and 5 of the Federal Power Act authorize the Commission to issue preliminary permits to potential license applicants for a period of up to three years.  While the statute does not specify how many preliminary permits an applicant may receive for the same site, the Commission's policy is to grant a successive preliminary permit only if it concludes that the applicant has pursued the requirements of its prior preliminary permit in good faith and with due diligence.   The Commission has noted that each application for a successive preliminary permit is considered on a case-by-case basis, but has described "a minimum bar that a permittee must achieve to be diligent."

A recent FERC delegated staff order in Coralville Energy, LLC, Project No. 14431-001, illustrates this policy.  On November 2, 2015, Coralville Energy applied to the FERC for a preliminary permit for the Burlington Street Dam Hydroelectric Project, to be located at the existing Burlington Street Dam on the Iowa River, near Iowa City in Johnson County, Iowa. 

But this was not Coralville Energy's first application relating to the Burlington Street; it had received a preliminary permit three years earlier, on October 18, 2012.  According to the 2015 order, the record under that prior permit "shows that Coralville Energy did not pursue the requirements of its prior permit with due diligence for purposes of receiving a successive permit because it fails to demonstrate progress toward preparing a development application."

In particular, the 2015 order notes that semi-annual reporting under the 2012 preliminary permit noted a series of items: late reports filed subsequent to Commission staff’s letters warning Coralville Energy of probable cancellation for failure to file progress reports; reports that were too brief, vague, and "nearly identical"; no change to the study plan from that proposed in 2012, suggesting no progress made toward the preparation of a development application; and no information about conducting, reviewing, or coordinating environmental studies or the status of the permittee’s efforts to obtain permission to access and use land not owned by the permittee.

By contrast, the order describes Commission staff's view that the requisite diligence requires completion of certain steps towards preparing a development application, including "developing study plans, conducting studies in a timely fashion, consulting with  resource agencies, and developing the application in accordance with the Commission’s regulations."  Additionally, Commission staff have said that it "must be able to discern a pattern of progress toward the preparation of a development application from the content of a permittee’s filings."

On this basis, the 2015 order denied Coralville Energy’s application for a successive preliminary permit.  The order illustrates FERC hydropower staff's perspective on the level of diligence expected of the holder of a preliminary permit.  It also highlights the importance of substantive action in pursuit of a license or development application as well as timely and adequate semi-annual reporting by preliminary permittees.

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