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McMorris Rodgers bill would speed dam licensing, designate hydropower as ‘renewable’

UPDATED: Tue., July 7, 2020

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, speaks  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, speaks (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

WASHINGTON – A new bill from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers would speed up the licensing process for hydroelectric dams and let a federal agency waive licensing requirements for small projects, as the Republican from Washington’s 5th district continues her efforts to make hydropower a bigger part of the nation’s evolving energy grid.

The legislation, introduced June 29 and dubbed the “Hydropower Clean Energy Future Act,” also calls for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to present a report to Congress on barriers slowing the development of new hydropower projects and would designate hydroelectric as a renewable energy source, requiring the federal government to purchase it under existing rules.

“Hydropower is one of America’s top renewable energy sources and accounts for roughly 70% of our clean energy in Washington state,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “Building a clean energy future doesn’t happen without prioritizing the continued development of hydroelectric energy resources.”

McMorris Rodgers, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, championed a similar bill in 2017 that also sought to make FERC, the federal regulator already charged with licensing for hydroelectric dams, the lead agency to set deadlines and coordinate environmental reviews that can take years to complete. That bill passed the House, then controlled by Republicans, but died before getting a vote in the Senate.

Part of that previous bill, a provision allowing dams to get a head start on relicensing by making infrastructure improvements, became law in a bigger water infrastructure package in 2018. The measures that made their way into the new bill, however, face a steep climb in the House, now controlled by Democrats, most of whom voted against the 2017 bill.

With Congress occupied with more urgent priorities – lawmakers are expected to spend July hammering out another COVID-19 relief package – and neither party likely interested in compromise ahead of the November election, the bill appears unlikely to pass before a new session of Congress begins in January.

GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse, who represents Central Washington, announced his support for the bill , calling hydropower “the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest.”

Hydroelectric dam operators hailed the new bill’s introduction. Steve Wright, general manager of the Chelan County Public Utility District, whose 40-year license for the Rock Island Dam near Wenatchee expires in 2029, voiced his support.

“We appreciate Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ efforts to ensure hydropower is treated fairly as a renewable resource,” Wright said. “Her latest legislation is an important step in improving the licensing process.”

Environmentalists, however, say “renewable” energy does not necessarily mean “clean.” Jerry White, executive director of Spokane Riverkeeper, said calling the legislation a clean energy bill “is a half-truth at best.”

“We’ve learned a lot about the impacts of hydropower over the last 50 years,” he said. “What we’ve learned is hydropower is not clean power. It comes with enormous consequences for aquatic ecosystems. We have spent billions trying to mitigate the environmental effects on fish.”

The “next-generation” hydropower projects the bill seeks to cultivate include “fish-friendly” turbines that promise less damage to fish runs, as well as smaller installations at some of the 97% of U.S. dams that don’t generate electricity, according to the Department of Energy. A 2016 report from the department projected that U.S. hydropower generation could grow by nearly 50% by 2050 through a combination of new infrastructure and upgrades at existing facilities.

White warned that rushing to scale up hydroelectric infrastructure could burden local ecosystems and the communities they support for the benefit of ratepayers in cities and the companies that sell them electricity.

“What I would say to the rest of the country is: Watch out what you’re being sold in terms of hydroelectric projects, because you’ll be paying the true costs for generations,” White said.

As America’s energy needs grow amid rising concern about climate change, Congress will need to decide how big a part hydropower will play in an energy grid that relies less on fossil fuels.

In introducing this bill, McMorris Rodgers has made it clear she sees an opening for hydropower to play a major role in the nation’s energy future.

Orion Donovan-Smith can be reached at (202) 853-2524 or at orionds@spokesman.com

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