Friends of the Eel River comments on FERC Office of Public Participation

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) asked for our input on development of their new Office of Public Participation, so of course we didn’t hold back. Engaging with FERC and extracting the information necessary to advocate for river protection in an informed manner has always been an onerous task. We hope that FERC takes our comments to heart and implements broad cultural change within the Commission.

The funding and activation of FERC’s Office of Public Participation are long overdue, and surely represent important steps toward increased, and more effective, civic engagement with FERC, its processes, and its decisions.

It is particularly important that the Office of Public Participation is attempting to reach out to communities which have long suffered from the unjust and disparate impacts of FERC’s decisions. However, merely encouraging the victims of generations of environmental injustice to participate in FERC’s opaque, indifferent processes will only add layers of insult to the harms these communities already suffer. A broad culture shift is necessary for meaningful change.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines “environmental justice” as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” In general, our experience is that FERC does not provide meaningful involvement with its decisions to the public.

Here is a summary of highlights from our comments:

A. FERC must be reformed to provide for democratic and effective civic engagement.

    1. FERC does not care what the public wants. Its partners are the utilities.
    2. FERC must accept its duty to make environmentally responsible decisions.
    3. FERC’s opposition to dam removal is structural and cultural. It is also arbitrary and capricious and without foundation in law.
    4. FERC treats dam safety as a state secret, at the expense of actual public safety.

B. FERC needs to shift its culture to ensure meaningful public engagement:

1. A few broad suggestions to that end:

    a. “Tell the truth and follow the law.”
    b. Be as transparent as possible.
    c. Listen to what the public says.
    d. Solve problems, don’t make them worse.
    e. Keep utilities at arms’ length
    f. Focus on the public interest.

2. Specifically, FERC’s Office of Public Participation should:

    a. Dramatically simplify FERC’s complex commenting process.
    b. Designate staff to provide technical assistance in engaging with FERC proceedings.
    c. Provide financial assistance for legal consultation, expert witnesses, and other outside assistance required for effective advocacy on FERC projects. This should be a simple grant process with high approval rates, or clearly articulated need-based thresholds.
    d. Provide general educational resources about FERC projects and processes. At present, the Commission lacks even basic resources, like a text-searchable Frequently Asked Questions document.
    e. Clearly communicate which docket items are open for comments and discussion. Streamline the use of subdockets. Give interested parties the right to intervene in subdockets where critical decisions are made.
    f. FERC imposes strict deadlines on parties that deal with the Commission, but routinely delays its own processes without explanation. Clearly articulate timelines for FERC processes, then follow them.
    g. To improve public information about FERC projects, OPP should sharply limit overuse of Critical Energy Infrastructure Information (CEII) classification, which keeps critical information about FERC projects out of the public eye.
    h. OPP can measure its effectiveness by regularly surveying commenters and interested parties.
    i. OPP should report its results publicly on the primary FERC website.

Click here to read our full comments