House Panel Marks up Hydro Relicensing Bill in Face of Veto Threat
5/17/2000 -- -- MAY 17, 2000
A House subcommittee Tuesday easily approved a controversial bill to streamline the hydropower relicensing process, but received a stern warning from Rep. John Dingell that the bill faces a certain presidential veto.
An expected partisan fight over the Hydroelectric Licensing Process Improvement Act (HR 2335) failed to materialize when most subcommittee Democrats were "no shows" at the markup.
The House Commerce subcommittee on energy and power approved by voice vote a substitute amendment to HR 2335 offered by subcommittee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas). Barton said his substitute would accommodate concerns expressed by environmentalists and federal agency officials at March hearing on the original bill.
Dingell (Mich.) was the only Democrat present to register any objections. Subcommittee Democrats skipped the markup to attend a House Democratic caucus, staffers said, but were expected to renew their opposition to the measure at the full committee markup, although the bill is sponsored by a Democrat, Rep. Edolphus Towns of New York.
Dingell responded that the Barton substitute "effectively guts" long-standing environmental protections and was an "iniquitous piece of legislation." Dingell warned of the veto threat, and declared, "Anyone who supports this legislation will know the meaning of the word 'pain.'" He echoed the environmentalists' argument that no new legislation was needed and reforms of the licensing process could be handled through administrative reform.
The subcommittee also approved an amendment by Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) that the sponsors said would provide new incentives to increase electricity generation capacity at existing hydropower dams.
Approval of the bill drew praise from an industry group and criticism from a conservation group.
Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, representing investor-owned utilities, said the bill "is a reasonable approach to licensing that maintains environmental protections, while at the same time recognizing the importance of power production and reliability, as well as benefits such as water supply, recreation and irrigation."
Steve Malloch of Trout Unlimited said, "Based on the dramatic declines in Northwest and Atlantic salmon, it's clear the agencies did not get it right 50 years ago when dams were built. This legislation makes sure that the agencies can't protect fish and wildlife during relicensing."
Environmentalists and the Clinton administration have argued that HR 2335 would eliminate long-standing environmental protections and would weaken the role of federal agencies in an effort to reform the hydropower licensing process at the request of the hydropower industry. Approximately two-thirds of the nation's hydropower capacity is up for license renewal in the next 15 years, affecting 130 rivers.
The Barton substitute amendment still would provide that federal agencies consider a host of factors, including economic impact, when setting mandatory conditions on hydropower dams. But it deleted the Towns language that would have given more weight to new scientific standards in the licensing process. It deleted an administrative appeals process regarding agency decisions so that court challenges would be the only effective remedy. The bill would no longer declare the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to be the lead agency in the review process.
Shadegg said the nation's 2,400 hydropower dams produce 92,000 megawatts per year of electricity, but would be capable of producing another 21,000 MW per year if the proper incentives were available to increase efficiency and new technologies.
The Shadegg-Wynn amendment would provide a credit of one-half cent per kilowatt-hour for utilities and dam owners for new hydro development at existing dams. It would provide for payments of 10 percent of capital costs if efficiency were improved by 3 percent or more at an existing project, such as through new turbines. It calls for a study to increase capacity at existing dams and would authorize $50 million per year for the program.
The subcommittee also approved by voice vote a Barton substitute to Senate-passed legislation (S 422, S. Rpt. 106-28) that would give the state of Alaska jurisdiction over small hydroelectric projects, generally five megawatts or less, within the state's borders. The bill, sponsored by Senate Energy Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), passed the Senate March 25, 1999. Barton's substitute added language concerning certification of the state program by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The subcommittee also approved two non-controversial measures: S 1937, a bill to allow the Bonneville Power Administration to sell electricity to a new class of customers called joint operating entities; and HR 4288, clarifying environmental, health and safety provisions that apply to the newly created National Nuclear Security Administration that will oversee the nation's nuclear weapons program.