House subcommittee passes hydropower, grid reliability bills

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power on June 7 approved on voice votes a pair of energy bills: the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act and the Resolving Environmental and Grid Reliability Conflicts Act.

Both measures now move to the full committee.

The GOP majority in the subcommittee said in a statement that in an effort to advance an “all of the above” energy strategy, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., co-authored H.R. 5892, the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act.

“While there are a vast array of renewable energies – including solar, wind, and nuclear power – in my opinion, the facts are clear: the future of American energy independence depends on the development of an ‘all of the above’ energy approach – including hydro,” said McMorris Rodgers. “That’s why Congresswoman DeGette and I have been working to expand hydropower production. Our bill is timely and targeted and it will create jobs and bolster America’s competitiveness in the energy sector.”

“The legislation has great promise for increased hydropower development across the nation, including for Michigan. Meeting the new hydropower project demand facilitated by this bill will create thousands of construction and manufacturing jobs to help stimulate the economy,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.

Reps. Pete Olson, R-Tex., Lee Terry, R-Neb., Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., Gene Green, D-Tex., Mike Doyle, D-Pa., and Charles Gonzalez, D-Tex., introduced the Resolving Environmental and Grid Reliability Conflicts Act, H.R. 4273, to ensure that U.S. power companies are able to comply with U.S. Department of Energy emergency orders to maintain grid reliability without facing penalties for violating potentially conflicting environmental laws related to mostly coal-fired power plants. This bill will amend the Federal Power Act so that power providers are not forced to choose between conflicting laws. Resolving this conflict will reduce uncertainty and help ensure the reliability of the nation’s electric grid, the GOP majority statement said.

“Emergency orders are not issued lightly, only under extreme reliability scenarios,” said Olson. “This bill is about keeping the power on for all Americans. We are committed to finding a solution that protects energy consumers, the environment and those who provide the power. I’m confident this bill achieves that goal and I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to move it forward.”

In a divided Congress, a lot of bills tend to die. But there is Democratic support for both of these House bills, which gives them a decent shot of House passage, then Senate concurrence. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., voiced support for both bills in an opening statement prior to the June 7 votes, though he did say there are problems with the DOE bill.

Said Waxman about the hydropower bill: “This bill was developed through a good, cooperative process that has produced balanced, bipartisan legislation. The legislation is supported by both hydropower developers and environmentalists.”

Waxman said he understands the basic concern expressed by proponents of the DOE bill. “Nobody wants to force a company to choose between complying with a DOE order and complying with environmental laws,” he added. “In reality, this type of conflict rarely, if ever, arises. An actual conflict between a DOE order and environmental requirements may have happened, at most, one time. While I am not convinced that legislation on this matter is necessary, I could support a targeted fix that addresses the industry’s concern in a balanced way. However, as currently drafted, this bill is overly broad given the narrow issue it purports to address. It gives DOE, in the name of reliability, unfettered authority to waive any federal, state, or local environmental requirement for an unlimited period of time. Of course we want DOE to do whatever is necessary to keep the lights on. But electric reliability does not require us to remove all authority from the agencies that Congress has tasked with protecting the environment.”

Under current law, if a utility is ordered by DOE to run a power plant for reliability purposes and it anticipates that it may violate an environmental requirement administered by EPA, the utility would need to negotiate with EPA for an administrative order or consent decree protecting the company against any EPA enforcement action. “That’s what Mirant did with the Potomac River plant back in 2006,” said Waxman, referring to a coal-fired power plant in the Washington D.C. area.

“EPA plays an important role in minimizing environmental impacts when a unit must run for reliability reasons,” Waxman added. “But under the introduced bill, a utility has no incentive to reach an agreement with EPA to minimize the environmental impacts of operating under a DOE order. EPA’s role is eliminated, leaving the public with no assurance that unnecessary pollution will be avoided. This creates the potential for a big loophole in environmental protections. The bill does include some non-binding language encouraging DOE to narrowly tailor its emergency orders. But that language is not mandatory. It provides no guarantee that the orders will minimize environmental impacts.”

Waxman said Democrats are having productive conversations with the bill’s sponsors and the committee chairman about ways to improve the bill and prevent unintended consequences. “I am hopeful that prior to consideration by the full committee we can agree on compromise language that fully addresses industry’s concern without sacrificing the environmental protections that we rely on EPA and other agencies to uphold,” Waxman added.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.