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The Dark Side Of Hydropower

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Daniel J. Graeber

Daniel J. Graeber

Daniel Graeber is a writer and political analyst based in Michigan. His work on matters related to the geopolitical aspects of the global energy sector,…

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The Strange Case of U.S. Hydropower Legislation

A measure is on its way to the U.S. Senate that proposes easing some regulations for hydroelectric dams in western states. The bill passed easily through the Republican House of Representatives, but faced some objection from lawmakers who complained it would skirt necessary environmental review. A legacy of partisan rancor on Capitol Hill suggests the bill might not stand a chance of seeing the light of day, however. Either the legislation contains some truly objectionable issues, or a policy of "no" is truly keeping even the smallest of energy issues off the U.S. political table.

Last week, the House passed the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act by a vote of 265-154, meaning at least a few of the Democrats in the House crossed the aisle in favor of the vote. The bill would exempt hydropower projects of 1.5 megawatts or less from National Environmental Policy Act review and cut through the red-tape that its Republican backers say are getting in the way of green-energy projects.

Republican critics of President Barack Obama have been crying foul over the lack of domestic oil and gas production. The Obama administration notes that oil and natural gas production is near record highs and the reliance on foreign energy sources is decreasing. His critics, however, contend that most of that benefit is left over from the previous administration. Seeking to handicap his chances of capitalizing on jobs, Republicans have tried to muscle the controversial Keystone XL project, a pipeline meant to carry what some critics see as the dirtiest type of oil on the planet, past a presidential review. Obama is a job killer that's too cozy with radical environmentalists, his critics say.

But might this Republican-backed hydropower bill actually make sense? Republican lawmakers, apart from the obligatory jobs claim, note the measure would go a long way to support what Obama calls his "all-of-the-above" energy policy. They say it would be an inexpensive means to advance hydroelectric power because the bill would authorize development on existing man-made water canals and pipes. Democrats, however, complain NEPA approval is necessary.

"I voted against H.R. 2842 because it would exempt small conduit hydropower development from being covered by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said in response to queries from Oilprice.com. "Despite repeated attempts by my Democratic colleagues to remove this exemption during committee markup and again with an amendment on the House floor, it remained in the bill." 

California last year emerged from a severe drought, which may in part be the reason for some of the objections to the legislation. The language makes specific mention to waterways "operated for the distribution of water for agricultural, municipal, or industrial consumption." Perhaps Republicans would later use the legislation as fodder against tougher environmental regulations, but at least on the surface, this bill seems to make sense. Senate leaders this week made a rare show of bipartisanship in passing a key transportation bill. Perhaps the hydropower bill stands a chance.

By. Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com


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