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Hydro hopefuls riding high

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Sep 20, 2023

McMorris Rodgers in 2022. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Hopes are riding high on the Hill for enacting hydro permitting legislation.

Why it matters: Just as with nuclear power, there's a lot of bipartisan support to get something done so that hydro projects can be approved at a faster clip. Right now, permitting delays abound.

  • But cutting an ambitious deal will ride on uniting fractious coalitions and threading the needle through the House, where chaos reigns.

Driving the news: House Energy and Commerce's Energy subcommittee held a hearing this morning on Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers' hydropower permitting package, the Hydropower Clean Energy Future Act.

  • The committee will mark up the package — long a priority for the chair — "as soon as possible," a GOP committee aide told Axios.

In the Senate, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee tomorrow is scheduled to consider Sens. Maria Cantwell and Steve Daines' Community and Hydropower Improvement Act. It came out of negotiations among the hydropower sector, academics, environmentalists and tribes.

  • A staffer working on the bill said Cantwell is pushing for its "inclusion in any permitting reform package."

There's "absolutely" a deal to be struck between the chambers, McMorris Rodgers told Axios outside the hearing room: "I know there's a lot of support and we can hammer it out."

Between the lines: Both bills are directionally similar in pushing for faster licensing, with small differences in their timing mandates for expediting permitting.

Yes, but: Many Democrats say they want any hydro bill to target ecological protection and tribal sovereignty — issues that have bedeviled past projects.

  • "There's a lot of sticky wickets there that need to be addressed to make that come together," said Sen. Martin Heinrich, who sits on Energy and Natural Resources.
  • The Cantwell-Daines bill satisfies those asks in multiple ways, including by directing the agencies to look at impacts on fish species and consider protecting species covered under government-to-government treaties with tribes.
  • The bill came out of what insiders and staff call the "uncommon dialogue," a group of industry reps and activists who aim to advance hydro projects in an environmentally and culturally sound manner.
  • Perhaps it's no surprise that during the E&C hearing, Rep. Doris Matsui told the room she'd rather they were "discussing that bill here today" instead. (Note: As of now there's no House companion.)

Of note: Democrats also said they have issues with the McMorris Rodgers bill, including language they say would exempt projects up to 40 MW from environmental reviews.

  • "Given the vast potential environmental impacts from hydropower projects, I frankly struggle with this provision," Rep. Diana DeGette said at the hearing.

Yes, but: The Cantwell-Daines bill may have a procedural problem if it winds up in the House.

  • The GOP E&C aide said that measure is expected to have to go through the Natural Resources Committee in addition to E&C because it addresses tribes. Another committee means a more complicated negotiation.

What industry says: It's happy to see Congress so motivated to move hydro along faster.

  • "We are very excited that reform legislation is moving in both the House and Senate," Matthew Allen, director of legislative affairs at the National Hydropower Association, said in a statement. "Nearly 50% of all hydropower facilities are up for relicensing by 2035, and an overly burdensome licensing and relicensing process puts our grid at risk."
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