Republicans call it a secret and radical agreement, while Biden officials say it will bring stability, help fish and communities
By Eric Barker of the Tribune
Jan 31, 2024
Senior members of the Biden administration and Republican members of Congress painted vastly divergent pictures Tuesday of the agreement that could pause litigation over Snake River dams and salmon for the next decade.
During a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of eastern Washington called the Columbia River hydropower system the beating heart of the Pacific Northwest and a marine super highway that powers the region and helps inland farmers reach global markets. But she described the agreement the administration struck late last year with Columbia River tribes like the Nez Perce and a coalition of fishing and conservation groups as a nefarious pact negotiated behind closed doors.
“CEQ cut a secret backroom deal to please radical environmentalists who are profiting from a campaign to tear out our dams,” she said while questioning Brenda Mallory, chairperson of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “You ignore the science and the law, and there will be consequences for that.”
Likewise, guests invited to testify by the Republicans described the agreement as a precursor to breaching four dams on the lower Snake River and said doing so will devastate farmers, cost ratepayers dearly and leave the energy system that fuels the Northwest vulnerable to blackouts.
Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said the Snake River dams provide affordable and reliable power that is always there and can help the region get through periods of extreme heat and cold. As an example, he pointed to last month’s arctic blast that brought below-zero temperatures to the Northwest and spiked energy consumption.
“As demand went up, the wind stopped blowing,” he said. “Wind production across the BPA system dropped from Jan. 11 to Jan. 13 by 94%. As the cold intensified, hydropower filled the gap, increasing output by roughly 50% during the same period, keeping the lights on and furnaces and space heaters running.”
Mallory and other administration officials said the agreement doesn’t breach the dams but replaces uncertainty spawned by litigation with a decade of hydropower certainty, helps the federal government meet its obligations to the tribes and will collect information that can inform Congress if it ever considers removing one or more of the dams.
“Let me be clear, the agreement does not usurp congressional authority on whether to breach any dams,” she said. “It does not exponentially raise rates on Bonneville (Power Administration) customers. Instead, it will benefit fish and communities. It will provide stability and contain costs for ratepayers and navigation interests. And it will provide a roadmap of information and investments needed to realize a resilient Columbia River Basin in partnership with tribes and states rather than in conflict.”
The agreement comes after decades of litigation challenging the government’s contention that dams can be operated in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize survival of salmon and steelhead protected by the Endangered Species Act. The Nez Perce and other plaintiffs have won every iteration of that litigation but until now haven’t convinced the federal government to take a new approach.
After the latest round of lawsuits, the Biden administration agreed to enter mediated talks with the plaintiffs that, after two years, produced the agreement. It pauses court proceedings for up to 10 years, commits the BPA to spend $300 million to restore salmon habitat and complete needed upgrades to Snake and Columbia River salmon and steelhead hatcheries. In addition, the government pledged to help the tribes develop up to 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects that can be counted as replacement for the power generated at the Snake River dams. Lastly, the government said it would study how best to replace the transportation, irrigation and power generations at the dams.
Jeremy Takala, chairperson of the Yakama Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Committee, said his tribe is far from a radical environmental group and called the agreement a “historic opportunity to help save our salmon and secure a just and prosperous future for everyone in the Columbia Basin.
“Healthy and abundant runs of salmon, steelhead would not just benefit Indian people but the larger population as well,” he said. “Thousands of jobs in the sports fishing and even commercial industry will last with diminished salmon rounds. Those jobs and the millions of dollars in income and even taxes would return with a healthy fishery. And those economic benefits need to be factored into this discussion.”
BPA Administrator John Hairston said the agreement doesn’t commit his agency to purchase power produced at projects developed by the tribes and he noted the agreement helps the agency by ending summer spill at the dams on July 31 instead of the middle of August.
Jeremy Baumann, director of policy and implementation at the Department of Energy, said the agreement doesn’t commit the federal government to pay for tribal energy projects. Instead, he said the government would provide technical assistance to the tribes as they pursue development of their own energy projects.
“We can’t vary from the competitive rules that apply to virtually all DOE funding,” he said.