Hydropower Bills Enjoy Bipartisan Support in Congress

Amy Harder

With a pair of bills on hydropower, lawmakers are reviving two pieces of conventional wisdom long forgotten in gridlocked Washington: Energy issues tend to be more geographical than ideological, and Republicans can (and do) support renewable energy.

The measures set to be considered Tuesday at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing seek to encourage hydropower development by streamlining regulations. Both bills already passed the House this year, one unanimously and the other nearly so.

“I know when something is ripe for political action, and that’s where hydro is now,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., at a conference Monday hosted by the National Hydropower Association. “We’re going to make sure we get this to the White House as quickly as possible and signed into law.”

The next speaker was another hydropower supporter. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers of Washington, leader of the House Republican Conference, echoed Wyden’s remarks. “I agree with the senator when he said the timing is good,” McMorris-Rodgers said. “We need to capitalize on this momentum.”

Although it doesn’t attract the political controversy or headlines of other renewable energy sources like wind and solar, hydropower accounts for 63 percent of the clean power in this country and 8 percent of total electricity, according to Energy Information Administration data.

Washington and Oregon lawmakers from both parties are at the forefront of this issue, chiefly because their two states are first and second in the country, respectively, in net hydroelectric power generated. This bipartisan, bicameral backing for hydropower is a reminder that in energy politics, support traditionally falls along geographical lines rather than ideological ones.

McMorris-Rodgers also noted the environmental benefits of hydropower. “It is clean,” she said. “That is a priority as we move forward that we are identifying those clean renewable sources of energy, so it makes hydropower more attractive.”

These bills have a key benefit over their renewable-energy counterparts: The Congressional Budget Office estimated that neither would have any “significant net impact” on the federal budget. Contrast that with the $12 billion price tag over 10 years that came along with a one-year extension of the wind-production tax credit and the $535 million federal loan guarantee Solyndra received before it went bankrupt.

This broad bipartisan push could be all for naught if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., doesn’t agree to bring the measures to the floor, where fights over unrelated amendments could drag the legislation down. “Every time I talk to him, he basically says we can’t move fast enough,” Wyden said. “He’s a strong, strong supporter of renewable energy.”

Reid’s office did not respond to a request for comment.