H.R.8 and the Hydropower Improvement Act of 2015—Another Missed Opportunity

Catherine Cumming, MJLST Lead Note & Comment Editor

While many people see the hydropower industry as a clean and sustainable energy source, most hydropower facilities are decades old and have severe environmental, economic, and social externalities. Relicensing provides an opportunity to bring aging dams up to modern environmental standards and compliance requirements. Over the past thirty years, American Rivers and the Hydropower Reform Coalition used the licensing process to improve hydropower dams and restore rivers. With over 6,000 megawatts of hydropower due for relicensing within the next five years, there are hundreds of dams and thousands of miles of river with an opportunity for improvement. Recent legislation, however, has failed to address the amount of hydropower due for relicensing and the opportunities it presents for increased energy production and environmental compliance. When Congress passed the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013, it failed favored efficiency over oversight and failed to the amount of hydropower due for relicensing and the opportunity it provided for efficiency upgrades.

This fall, Congress missed yet another opportunity to modernize hydropower and decrease its negative externalities. Rather than “modernize” hydropower, the Energy & Commerce Committee’s approval of a hydropower amendment to H.R.8, the “North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015” and Senator Lisa Murkowski’s “Hydropower Improvement Act” ignore the opportunity for increased efficiency and sustainability by creating compliance loopholes for the hydropower industry. If enacted, these bills would allow energy companies to opt out of Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and state water quality and wildlife protections; allow dam owners to pass the costs and burdens of obeying water quality standards, wildlife laws, and cleaning up pollution caused by dams to taxpayers; and transfer state and federal agency authority to protect natural resources to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. While 2011 was the “Year of the River,” 2015 is becoming the “Year of Hydropower.” Community interest groups and environmental organizations are concerned that H.R.8 and the “Hydropower Improvement Act” will “turn back the clock and take the hydropower industry back to a time when they could destroy rivers with impunity.”

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