FERC’s New Focus on Public Participation Is Nothing New for Waterpower

FERC’s New Focus on Public Participation Is Nothing New for Waterpower

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How do members of the general public with limited time, resources, and experience engage meaningfully with a highly technical, process-driven, 100-year-old federal agency? That is the challenge the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is currently trying to solve and it’s no easy task.

A once behind-the-scenes agency that escaped the usual political fervor of Washington, D.C., FERC now finds itself increasingly in the spotlight as the United States shifts toward renewables and realizes that FERC holds the keys to the electric grid and many of the nation’s energy projects.

As the importance of FERC’s decisions grow, so too does its responsibility to engage with the public who live with the consequences.

In the context of waterpower, the public participation focus is not a new one. The hydropower licensing process is already a transparent process that features a broad range of stakeholders. Whether the proceeding is for an original license, relicense, license amendment, or exemption, the applicant is required to conduct public outreach, such as public meetings with advance notice posted in media outlets.

The Deep Dive: What Just Happened? 

In December 2020, Congress directed FERC to submit a report by June 25, 2021, on the creation of the Office of Public Participation. After months of stakeholder feedback, FERC issued the report on June 24 and committed to the creation of the new office.

How exactly the office will function remains to be seen, but many stakeholders provided FERC with recommendations, including:

  • Prioritize historically marginalized communities
  • Identify proceedings that are most ripe for public input
  • Provide translations for non-English speakers
  • Explain decisions and policies in plain language
  • Remain neutral and help stakeholders with the process, but not the formulation of opinions

The FERC website now features a job posting for Director of the office, referred to as the OPP, as well as other positions, and the report notes the office will learn and grow over the next four years, after which it will be fully operational.

Why It Matters?

As the report notes, commentors overwhelmingly support the OPP focusing on traditionally underrepresented parties. Since FERC makes its decisions based on the record, a more robust record leads to more informed decisions. When an individual misses a comment deadline or gets lost in eLibrary, then FERC is forced to make decisions without understanding the whole story.

To ensure this happens as infrequently as possible, the OPP will soon provide technical support and financing for underrepresented groups to engage in FERC proceedings. How this will play out in practice remains to be seen, but at least in the waterpower context, it should not be anything entirely new. The hydropower or marine energy licensing process is already a transparent process that features a broad range of stakeholders. Whether the proceeding is for an original license, relicense, license amendment, or exemption, the applicant is required to conduct public outreach, such as public meetings with advance notice posted in media outlets.

In addition, FERC’s hydropower offices have created primers and handbooks that assist the public with participation on hydropower matters at FERC, such as the Hydropower Primer – Chapter 7: Public Resources and Outreach, or the Commission’s Hydropower Licensing – How to Get Involved, A Guide for the Public, and several other similar publications.

The new office is sure to have some challenges and setbacks, but at least for now, it appears stakeholders are down with FERC OPP.