House votes 416-7 in favor of easing barriers to hydropower development

The bill would exempt small hydropower projects from environmental rules when they are placed in canals or water pipelines controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation. Supporters say this exemption makes sense because these man-made sites have already undergone an environmental review.

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"These new projects will only be at existing facilities," House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said. "These existing man-made facilities have already gone through extensive environmental review when they were initially built. Requiring duplicative reviews on existing facilities only imposes unnecessary delays and thus administrative costs."

The bill considered on the floor would have waived these environmental rules, but several Democrats argued that the roadblocks to hydropower development are not so severe that they warrant a waiver. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) said the waiver is what stopped the Senate from passing a similar House-passed bill in the last Congress.

"Just like the last time, the Senate won't pass it," she said.

Just before the final vote, however, the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), proposed an amendment to remove the waiver from the bill, and replace it with language that permanently excludes small hydropower projects from the law. The House approved that by voice vote, and supporters said that change brought the bill more into line with what the government was looking to do anyway, and provides more legal certainty for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The bill also authorizes the development of hydropower along Reclamation facilities, and makes clear that hydropower generation is secondary to the main goal of moving water through the various pipelines and canals that the Bureau operates.

Other Democrats said the bill should not be a priority given the need to focus on ways to create jobs in the country, and called on the House to adopt portions of the Democratic "Make it in America" agenda. But those complaints clearly did not resonate with most Democrats in the final vote.

Republicans said during the debate that easing barriers to hydropower development would help create jobs, and lower the price of electricity.

"By installing small generators in the existing pipelines, we could add the equivalent generating capacity of major hydroelectric dams, meaning millions of dollars of new revenue to the government, millions of watts of new clean cheap electricity, and all the jobs these projects would produce," Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said.

Based on the vote, dozens of Democrats agreed with that position, including Rep. Jim Costa (Calif.), the only Democrat to support the bill during debate.

"If we want to strengthen our energy portfolio, let's start with the low-hanging fruit," he said. "This is the low-hanging fruit."

During consideration of the bill, Napolitano proposed an amendment to remove the environmental waiver, but the House struck down her proposal in a 189-232 vote after accepting Tipton's amendment. The House did pass an amendment containing technical corrections.

Passage of the bill by the House sends it to the Senate. But despite the clear vote in favor of the bill, it's not clear whether Senate Democrats will consider it at all this year.

— This story was updated at 9:39 p.m.