New Oregon Energy Department rules are drawing fire from conservation groups that claim they hamper the public from seeing and challenging decisions about large energy facilities.

The group has asked the Oregon Supreme Court to reject the rules, according to reporting by The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger.

Although the merits of the dispute deserve unbiased consideration, the department’s years-long series of troubles — ranging from mismanaged energy tax credits, to the indebted small-scale loan program, to an employee pleading guilty to taking bribes — lay a cloud of suspicion over any new controversy.

The issue involves the department’s Energy Facility Siting Council, which in October rolled out new rules that one official said were designed to balance staff review time and public engagement.

Critics say the new rules are worse than the old ones, allowing new projects to be handled as amendments to existing ones, thus cutting out steps where the public could engage and challenge. Big wind farms, pipelines and power plants have been handled that way. Staff decide which process is used in each case.

The rules establish three kinds of reviews:

• Complex projects get an automatic public hearing, but there is no comment period early in the process and there are limits on who can make challenges and how challenges can be made.

• Less complicated amendments don’t get a hearing or an opportunity for objection.

• Emergency cases allow developers to move forward with the project and then go back to do the usual permitting later.

The problems are not new, only exacerbated by rules supposedly designed to alleviate them. Critics see the department as working for the developers rather than the public.

Lawmakers considered complaints about the issues last year, Sickinger reports, without coming to consensus before the committee was dissolved. A new work group, chaired by Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, is making another effort and hopes to propose legislation for the 2019 session.

The controversy appears to pit environmentalists against energy business interests, with the Energy Department in the middle. Lawmakers will make progress only by examining individual cases and decisions to determine how the rules are actually working, rather than just what they say. Rooting out bias on both sides is critical to ensuring the department works for the people of Oregon, not environmentalists or business interests.

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