NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Environmentalists Closing The Hydroelectric Option

September 23, 1999

Just what kind of energy is acceptable to environmentalists? Certainly not that based on burning coal, gas and oil -- which they claim leads to global warming. What about non-polluting hydroelectric power? Not only do dams create clean electricity, they control flooding and provide water for irrigation. But environmentalists nix this option, because dams disturb the habits and habitats of fish and other wildlife.

  • Dams generate about 11 percent of the nation's power.
  • Experts predict that in the next 15 years, 284 private hydro-dam owners -- or roughly two-thirds of those not operated by the federal government -- will be challenged on environmental grounds and face the possible loss of their licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
  • As for big federal power dams -- which aren't regulated by FERC -- those can be ordered by federal agencies operating under the Endangered Species Act to alter operations deemed harmful to animals.
  • The Department of Energy wants utilities to produce 7.5 percent of energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass by 2010 -- notably not including hydro because, under pressure from environmental groups, that clean option is excluded.

Among the strong environmental lobbies that oppose dams is American Rivers. It lobbied for a 1986 change in the Federal Power Act that requires FERC to weigh environmental factors on the same footing as power and safety issues.

American Rivers' president says the group is working on a scorecard to measure how dams are protecting the environment. But its score-keeping excludes the fact that dams don't pollute.

Meanwhile, an Indian tribe in Washington state has joined the anti-dam fray. It claims that the 70-year-old two-dam complex there known as the Cushman Project has destroyed its 10,000-year- old culture. The tribe is preparing a $5.8 billion law suit.

Source: John J. Fialka, "Hydroelectric Dams Generate a Flood of Controversy," Wall Street Journal, September 23, 1999.


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