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McMorris Rodgers bill speeding up hydropower dam licensing clears U.S. House

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 8, 2017, 10 p.m.

FILE - The Nine Mile Dam on the Spokane River seen in June 2017. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers proposed legislation, passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday, she says will speed up the relicensing process of dams by a federal agency. Avista’s license on Spokane’s dams was last updated in 2009. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - The Nine Mile Dam on the Spokane River seen in June 2017. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers proposed legislation, passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday, she says will speed up the relicensing process of dams by a federal agency. Avista’s license on Spokane’s dams was last updated in 2009. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

An effort by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers to speed up what she calls an unnecessary delay to approve the construction and re-licensing of hydroelectric dams cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday.

“That process, right now, is taking many, many years,” the fourth-ranking Republican in the House said in an interview Wednesday. “It can take up to eight, 10 years, if not longer.”

McMorris Rodgers’ legislation enables the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to establish a schedule for federal and state agencies, local governments and Native American tribes to provide comments on a dam’s construction. The bill passed the U.S. House on Wednesday afternoon by a 257-to-166 vote, with 26 Democrats joining the GOP to push the proposal forward.

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, also voted for the legislation.

While the congresswoman argues the law is necessary to expand the nation’s output of green energy, environmental groups and a coalition of governors in the Western United States warn the bill could hasten the approval process at the expense of ensuring older dams meet current environmental regulations and the authority of local governments to determine water rights.

Sharon Bosley, executive director of the conservation nonprofit Kootenai Environmental Alliance in Coeur d’Alene, said the law allows federal regulators to potentially set aggressive approval timetables preventing local interests, including environmental groups or tribes, from voicing concerns. Licenses that last between 30 and 50 years mean a decision adverse for the environment could be difficult to undo, she said.

“The ability to influence one of these licenses only comes up once in a generation,” Bosley said. She’s also concerned the bill classifies all hydropower electricity as renewable, without regard to how a new dam might affect water quality or wildlife in a watershed.

A letter from the Western Governors’ Association, a coalition representing the heads of 19 states, including Idaho and Washington, sent a letter to Congress in May urging representatives not to allow the federal government to supersede local regulatory authority on dams.

“States are vested with primary authority to manage water within their borders, and they have the authority to develop, use, control and distribute water resources within those boundaries,” wrote James Ogsbury, executive director of the governors group, in a letter to congressional leaders dated May 1.

McMorris Rodgers said her bill does nothing to alter the environmental standards a hydroelectric project must meet in order to be licensed or re-licensed. Putting the federal commission in charge of the application process will also quicken communication between agencies and lead to licensed dams faster, she said.

“It’s a lead agency that can hold other agencies to a schedule, and just help with the collaboration that needs to take place,” McMorris Rodgers said.

Democrats in Congress have been dubious of other efforts by House Republicans this year to “streamline” energy projects by placing FERC, a regulatory agency created in the 1970s along with the Department of Energy, in charge of coordinating permits for oil and natural gas pipelines. McMorris Rodgers voted for those pieces of legislation, which were panned by House Democrats as promoting fossil fuel consumption amid increasing evidence of the effects of man-made climate change.

But the goal of the bill passed Wednesday is to increase the availability of clean energy, McMorris Rodgers said. She pointed to studies conducted by the Department of Energy in 2012 indicating just 3 percent of the nation’s existing dams have been electrified, and the nation could double its hydropower output without building any new dams.

“You’re talking about the potential to increase a renewable, reliable, affordable source of electricity that compliments wind, and solar, and other sources of energy,” the congresswoman said.

Avista Corp. has voiced its support for the legislation. In 2002, the utility began what became a seven-year process to re-license the five dams it owns on the Spokane River, which included a promised investment of $300 million to improve recreation, monitor water quality and protect fish populations.

“Where once procedural requirements for licensing hydropower facilities may have been construed as favoring development, today they can be perceived as being daunting and deterring, if not obstructing,” wrote K. Collins Sprague, senior director of government relations for Avista, in a letter sent to the congresswoman in support of the legislation.

McMorris Rodgers hopes the Senate will act quickly on her legislation, noting it approved a similar measure in the past that wasn’t enacted into law.


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