House subcommittee looks to help hydropower developers by throttling endangered species protection rules

The House Committee on Natural Resources held an oversight hearing earlier this week to discuss endangered species protection rules it sees as obstacles to hydroelectric power and dam infrastructure projects.

The hearing — the first for the group’s Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans during this Congressional term — established that the committee values hydropower and its advantages over other more intermittent renewables, and that it supports hydroelectric growth.

Citing endangered species rules the committee considers archaic given improvements in construction methodology and equipment technology since their creation, the committee said the rules are a barrier that creates a difficult market for hydro developers.

“We need to remove some excessive federal barriers so that non-federal utilities and entrepreneurs can step in to fill the void,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.

Committee members also noted that the permitting process for construction at both federal and non-federal infrastructure is prohibitively arduous, making simplification of a priority.

“It is also disturbing that federal studies for new storage or hydropower relicensing last for decades when we put a man on the moon in eight years,” Lamborn said.

Infrastructure complications caused by endangered species rules have been brought to the national forefront as the California Department of Water Resources — with oversight from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — works to repair spillway damage at California’s Oroville Dam.

While most agree that repairs to the dam are an immediate priority, work is being slowed as FERC responds to concerns that closing the spillway — a necessary step toward repairing it — might endanger salmon and sturgeon in the Feather River beneath the dam by causing its water levels to decrease.

Similar snags are feared in the federal relicensing procedure given the high number of hydropower projects up for review in the coming decades. According to FERC, more than 500 plants will commence a relicensing process between now and 2030, with those plants representing about half of all licensed project under FERC jurisdiction and 30% of all licensed hydro capacity.

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Michael Harris formerly was Editor for HydroWorld.com.

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