U.S. House committee to visit Pasco to hear about dam, hydropower legislation

The House Natural Resources Committee will visit Pasco on Wednesday for a field hearing about wide-ranging legislation introduced by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., to promote new hydropower development and protect dams.

"Unfortunately, existing hydropower generation is under attack from government red-tape and endless litigation, which prevents the job creation and economic growth opportunities that come with the expansion of new hydropower," said Hastings, committee chairman, in a statement.

The hearing will provide an opportunity for the committee to hear from local leaders and other invited speakers about the value of protecting existing dams and the economic and job creation benefits of expanding hydropower production, he said. The hearing at 9 a.m. at TRAC, 6600 Burden Blvd., Pasco, is open to the public.

Speakers will include Jim Sanders, general manager of the Benton Public Utility District.

The bill introduced by Hastings, called the Saving Our Dams and New Hydropower Development and Jobs Act, would "help eliminate government roadblocks and frivolous litigation that stifle development," he said.

It would prohibit federal dollars from being used to remove or breach hydropower dams or to study those actions without specific authorization by Congress.

It also seeks to prevent federal grants from being used by groups suing the federal government to breach or remove dams or otherwise prevent the generation of hydropower. The prohibition would extend up to a decade after the legal action.

Consumers also would have more information about how much environmental laws to protect fish and wildlife add to their power bills. Monthly bills would include estimates of direct costs and also indirect costs such as replacement power costs.

The bill would make clear that hydropower is a renewable energy source, just as wind and solar are considered renewable sources.

Hydropower would be encouraged by allowing parties such as irrigation districts and other local governments to complete planning and feasibility studies authorized by Congress for dams. Projects would be authorized for construction only if no federal money is required to finance, build or operate the hydropower project.

The provision is intended to help get stalled projects started.

The bill would seek to make more money available for hydropower by allowing in-stream hydropower development on Bureau of Reclamation water canals and pipes. Revenue from the projects would be dedicated for building new water storage and repairing hydropower infrastructure.

The bill would raise additional money for new hydropower projects by dedicating some of the repayments made by the Bonneville Power Administration and other power marketing administrations to the federal government for capital projects.

The bill also addresses a March memo from Energy Secretary Steven Chu giving what many congressional leaders say are new directives to BPA and other power marketing administrations. It would prohibit federal money being spent for the new activities outlined in the memo until a report is completed to justify activities and Congress authorizes the activities.

The memo directs BPA and other administrations to create rate structures that incentivize preparation for electric vehicles, energy efficiency programs, programs that respond to demand and the integration of variable resources, such as power from wind.

The memo also discusses improving electric grid infrastructure, transmission expansion and collaboration with other operators of the grid.

Nineteen Northwest legislators, including Hastings and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., signed a letter to Chu this spring saying that many of the memo's directives have merit but that they are concerned that the Department of Energy is making requirements outside BPA's legal authority.

The result could be "high-cost, low-benefit outcomes for some of our constituents," the letter stated.

A second letter to Chu was sent in June by 166 bipartisan representatives and senators, saying the memo's "proposals constitute a fundamental shift away from regional planning, and the understanding of local needs and impacts which comes with it, towards a Washington, D.C.-based, top-down approach."

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com