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Hydro hopefuls get their day

Jul 19, 2023
California's Shasta Dam

California's Shasta Dam in June. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A Senate hearing Wednesday revealed the potential for bipartisan legislation to speed up hydro permitting.

Why it matters: Hydro hopefuls may have a real shot at permitting changes this Congress.

Driving the news: The Energy and Natural Resources water subcommittee held a hearing today on bills that included the Community and Hydropower Improvement Act, which would set new requirements to quicken the pace of hydro permits.

  • The bill, introduced by Steve Daines and co-sponsored by Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, would set a two-year deadline for FERC to take final action on hydro facilities using next-generation technology.
  • It would also require FERC to create a three-year process for completing the licensing of closed-loop and off-stream pumped storage projects.
  • In a bid to address community concerns, the bill would require the government to consult with affected tribes on projects and provide an opportunity for them to submit recommendations on protecting culturally significant fish and wildlife.

What they're saying: "This bill is the largest bipartisan hydropower permitting reform bill in two decades," Daines said at the hearing.

  • ENR subcommittee Chair Ron Wyden, who also co-sponsored the bill, said permitting hydro "has always been a big issue for us in the Pacific Northwest."

Of note: The bill at first blush appears to have more bipartisan buy-in than House E&C Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers' hydropower permitting package, which also would set permitting timelines.

The big picture: "To the extent there are hydropower licensing reform bills, and they are both moving through the legislative process, is a great first step for our industry," said Matthew Allen, National Hydropower Association director of legislative affairs.

  • Allen said hydro's biggest hurdle to a permitting win this Congress is "to continue to be included in the conversation" as talks continue for another package of permitting bills.

Our thought bubble: Hydro permitting legislation is likelier to move now than in past attempts, as Democrats race to speed up anything that can cut carbon emissions and benefit from the IRA.

  • Historically, conservationists opposed to hydro dams have won Democrats over with concerns about impacts to fish populations.
  • But these days, post-IRA, some Democrats are worried about longstanding environmental statutes and conservation community concerns getting in the way of a faster energy transition.

What we're watching for: a potential ENR markup, as well as any grousing from the more traditional conservationist community about hydro and fish.

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