Klamath Dam Removal: What’s Different This Time Around?

Mike Belchik, Senior Water Policy Analyst, Yurok Tribe

Winning banner made by Annelia Hillman for Save California Salmon Klamath Dam Media Challenge. Photo Stormy Staats

On Tuesday, November 17, 2020 a press conference was held to herald a new agreement that moves Klamath dam removal closer to reality.  But wait!  Haven’t we heard this before?  What’s different this time?  Dam removal agreements were reached in 2010, 2016, and again in 2020.  What’s different now?  

What’s different now is that PacifiCorp and its parent company, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, are publicly committed to dam removal and have filed an application with regulators to actually remove the project.  What’s different is that the owner of the dams, Warren Buffett, is now publicly backing dam removal on the Klamath as the right thing to do not only for the river, but for Indigenous people and cultures on the river.  “I recognize the importance of Klamath dam removal and river restoration for tribal people in the Klamath Basin. We appreciate and respect our tribal partners for their collaboration in forging an agreement that delivers an exceptional outcome for the river, as well as future generations. Working together from this historic moment, we can complete the project and remove these dams.”  Warren Buffett; November 17, 2020

The world of energy infrastructure regulation is obscure and complex.  Intricate rules and procedures govern the regulation of these facilities but they generally fail to take into account the rights of indigenous people or the systemic wrongs and the slow death of the Klamath River and its fish.  For example, even as Yurok and other tribes bore the brunt of impact of the loss of fish, most of their people were not afforded access to electricity from the facilities.  No attempt was ever made to compensate tribal people for the hardships put on them by these hydroelectric projects.  Furthermore, no amount of compensation could ever make up for the loss of the river and its fish.  None.  

It was in this context that the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa Valley, and Klamath Tribes entered the relicensing process before the operating licenses for the dams expired in 2006.  All four tribes began to bring up the subject of dam removal in the meetings, but our concerns were brushed off by the company.  However, after court battles, and a lengthy negotiation, the Tribes were able to forge an agreement in 2010 with PacifiCorp for dam removal in 2020, with the company paying the first $200,000,000 of costs.  This agreement was modified in 2016 after required legislation for the 2010 agreement failed to pass Congress.  

The 2016 agreement, known as the amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) called for PacifiCorp to transfer ownership of the dams to a newly created nonprofit corporation (Klamath River Renewal Corporation, or KRRC) who would then remove the dams using the funds PacifiCorp had already collected under the 2010 agreement.  The transfer of ownership as well as the decommissioning plans (also known as a surrender application) would all have to be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in Washington DC.  

In 2017, KRRC and PacifiCorp applied to transfer ownership and operating license from PacifiCorp to KRRC.  In July 2020, after years of waiting, FERC issued its decision.  FERC approved the transfer but added a requirement that PacifiCorp stay on the license.  For PacifiCorp, this was a nonstarter.  PacifiCorp argued that FERC had rejected a central tenet of the KHSA by requiring them to stay on as a co-licensee, which would subject the company to liabilities or cost overruns associated with project removal.  A week after the FERC decision, PacifiCorp sent a notice to the KHSA parties stating that it intended to walk away from the deal.  It was a dark time and it appeared that 20 years of work by activists, scientists, and Indigenous leadership was on the brink of failure.  But failure is not an option.  There is no other river to go to.  The Klamath is home.  

The dilemma was this:  if PacifiCorp was pushed to be co-licensee, they threatened to bring out of state regulators into the process, which could cost years of delay or could even fail altogether.  If we rejected the FERC order and tried to start over, that too would cause delay.  Delay not only increases the plight of the salmon, it has budgetary implications too.  The KRRC was already operating and each year of delay could consume a significant part of the funds earmarked for dam removal itself.  

We sat down and talked.  PacifiCorp is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which is a huge corporation owned by Warren Buffett.  We got governors involved.  Governor Newsom sent a helpful letter to Warren Buffett who owns Berkshire Hathaway, which owns the dams on the Klamath.  Congressman Huffman held field hearings.  Most importantly, we were able to sit down (via Zoom) and talk with Berkshire Hathaway leadership.  We all struggled to find a way through this regulatory mess created by the FERC decision.  

In the end, we were able to find a way forward.  The way forward involved Berkshire Hathaway compromising on its position to not move the decommissioning application forward with its name on it.  The states of California and Oregon stepped in and agreed to assume co-licensee status once the decommissioning order was issued by FERC.  KRRC will continue its work to actually bring these dams down.  The states of CA and OR, as well as Berkshire Hathaway, agreed to shore up the removal funding and cover cost overruns, given how unlikely those are.  

The wrongs perpetuated on the Indigenous peoples of the Klamath are ghastly, and this one act of restorative justice will not right all those wrongs.  But it’s a good down payment.  

On Tuesday, November 17, 2020 a press conference was held to herald a new agreement that moves Klamath dam removal closer to reality.  But wait!  Haven’t we heard this before?  What’s different this time?  Dam removal agreements were reached in 2010, 2016, and again in 2020.  What’s different now?  

What’s different now is that PacifiCorp and its parent company, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, are publicly committed to dam removal and have filed an application with regulators to actually remove the project.  What’s different is that the owner of the dams, Warren Buffett, is now publicly backing dam removal on the Klamath as the right thing to do not only for the river, but for Indigenous people and cultures on the river.  “I recognize the importance of Klamath dam removal and river restoration for tribal people in the Klamath Basin. We appreciate and respect our tribal partners for their collaboration in forging an agreement that delivers an exceptional outcome for the river, as well as future generations. Working together from this historic moment, we can complete the project and remove these dams.”  Warren Buffett; November 17, 2020

The world of energy infrastructure regulation is obscure and complex.  Intricate rules and procedures govern the regulation of these facilities but they generally fail to take into account the rights of indigenous people or the systemic wrongs and the slow death of the Klamath River and its fish.  For example, even as Yurok and other tribes bore the brunt of impact of the loss of fish, most of their people were not afforded access to electricity from the facilities.  No attempt was ever made to compensate tribal people for the hardships put on them by these hydroelectric projects.  Furthermore, no amount of compensation could ever make up for the loss of the river and its fish.  None.  

It was in this context that the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa Valley, and Klamath Tribes entered the relicensing process before the operating licenses for the dams expired in 2006.  All four tribes began to bring up the subject of dam removal in the meetings, but our concerns were brushed off by the company.  However, after court battles, and a lengthy negotiation, the Tribes were able to forge an agreement in 2010 with PacifiCorp for dam removal in 2020, with the company paying the first $200,000,000 of costs.  This agreement was modified in 2016 after required legislation for the 2010 agreement failed to pass Congress.  

The 2016 agreement, known as the amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) called for PacifiCorp to transfer ownership of the dams to a newly created nonprofit corporation (Klamath River Renewal Corporation, or KRRC) who would then remove the dams using the funds PacifiCorp had already collected under the 2010 agreement.  The transfer of ownership as well as the decommissioning plans (also known as a surrender application) would all have to be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in Washington DC.  

In 2017, KRRC and PacifiCorp applied to transfer ownership and operating license from PacifiCorp to KRRC.  In July 2020, after years of waiting, FERC issued its decision.  FERC approved the transfer but added a requirement that PacifiCorp stay on the license.  For PacifiCorp, this was a nonstarter.  PacifiCorp argued that FERC had rejected a central tenet of the KHSA by requiring them to stay on as a co-licensee, which would subject the company to liabilities or cost overruns associated with project removal.  A week after the FERC decision, PacifiCorp sent a notice to the KHSA parties stating that it intended to walk away from the deal.  It was a dark time and it appeared that 20 years of work by activists, scientists, and Indigenous leadership was on the brink of failure.  But failure is not an option.  There is no other river to go to.  The Klamath is home.  

The dilemma was this:  if PacifiCorp was pushed to be co-licensee, they threatened to bring out of state regulators into the process, which could cost years of delay or could even fail altogether.  If we rejected the FERC order and tried to start over, that too would cause delay.  Delay not only increases the plight of the salmon, it has budgetary implications too.  The KRRC was already operating and each year of delay could consume a significant part of the funds earmarked for dam removal itself.  

We sat down and talked.  PacifiCorp is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which is a huge corporation owned by Warren Buffett.  We got governors involved.  Governor Newsom sent a helpful letter to Warren Buffett who owns Berkshire Hathaway, which owns the dams on the Klamath.  Congressman Huffman held field hearings.  Most importantly, we were able to sit down (via Zoom) and talk with Berkshire Hathaway leadership.  We all struggled to find a way through this regulatory mess created by the FERC decision.  

In the end, we were able to find a way forward.  The way forward involved Berkshire Hathaway compromising on its position to not move the decommissioning application forward with its name on it.  The states of California and Oregon stepped in and agreed to assume co-licensee status once the decommissioning order was issued by FERC.  KRRC will continue its work to actually bring these dams down.  The states of CA and OR, as well as Berkshire Hathaway, agreed to shore up the removal funding and cover cost overruns, given how unlikely those are.  

The wrongs perpetuated on the Indigenous peoples of the Klamath are ghastly, and this one act of restorative justice will not right all those wrongs.  But it’s a good down payment.