Councilman votes ‘no’ on hydro
November 3, 2012
I mailed in my ballot last weekend with a “no” vote on the hydro question. I do not take it lightly to go against my fellow councilmen, the mayor and city staff, not to mention other community leaders whom I deeply respect and who have long histories of environmental stewardship: the Markalunus and Brown families, Paul Andersen, Auden Schendler, let alone the entire Aspen Skiing Co. and many others. My concerns, however, are not environmental or financial but the process where we are.
However, before I discuss my concerns about the process, let me make a few remarks in support of the project itself. First, regarding the healthy-stream issue, the city deserves a lot of credit for committing to more legally binding safeguards and a slow-start process than any hydro project in the entire world. The city will not destroy the creeks – from a combination of legally binding contracts and the city’s honest desire not to harm them. If the streams start to show signs of stress, the city will be forced to shut the hydro plant off for longer than planned so the streams will be protected.
Secondly, the project makes financial sense in the long term. The 75- to 100-year numbers, even after the cost overruns, show very inexpensive energy once bonds and construction costs are paid off. This project never should have been sold as a premium to do the right thing.
However, my concerns about the process itself outweigh the positives. I voted “no” out of frustration with the city on two aspects. First, while all organizations make mistakes, there is usually some level of accountability attached to those mistakes. No one has been held accountable for the significant execution of this project. I continue to hear from people who voted for this the first time and are changing their vote as they have lost confidence in the city to execute the game plan going forward based on performance to date. I assume many of the people who actually voted “no” the first time were also pro-green energy but were worried the city would muck up the process.
Second, I continue to be frustrated by the hypocritical double standard of environmental review. City Hall asks for a tremendous amount of mitigation and studies for all projects. I support much of that work. What infuriates me is when the city, faced with its own project, continually took the lowest road possible regarding environmental analysis. My understanding is that the first plan was to tell the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that we were planning to “restart” the use of hydro on the creeks, so there was no reason to file any type of application (thus skip any environmental review). That did not seem to fly with the commission and some members of the community.
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Then the city asked for a “conduit exemption” application which would allow for a minimal environmental impact study. While I am not sure if the agency ever ruled on the appropriateness of the conduit exemption, I do know that more people in the community started to pay attention to the process and asked for a higher level of environmental analysis. I went on record asking for the city to stay away from any “exemption” and make a full application and thus a more robust environmental analysis. A few weeks later, City Council took that action. When I ran this history by a senior person in City Hall last week the answer back was (paraphrasing), “Why should we do any more than what we are legally obligated?” This was one of the worst things I have heard within City Hall; I did not think the city’s environmental bar was to bottom-fish the law books.
In my view, if the vote passes by a slim margin, it will be due to the anonymous funding that went into fighting the ballot question, something the vast majority of people here do not like to see, regardless of political view, and I strongly agree. I think the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United was one of its worst, and I do not want to see anonymous money entering the local political process.
If the vote fails, I do not think it will be because of all the money spent on the anti-vote. To me, that is deflecting the real concern to “swing voters.” Not all of money is hidden – there are many who are putting their names and money behind their anti-vote publicly, but it’s due to a lack of confidence in the city to execute.