WASHINGTON — Rep. Scott Tipton bill to produce hydropower from small canals and ditches sailed through the House of Representatives last week, picking up strong Democratic support after the Cortez Republican struck a compromise on a key environmental provision.
The legislation would allow the development of hydropower on as many as 373 existing man-made Bureau of Reclamation sites, 28 of which are in Colorado, that possess the capacity to generate 5 megawatts or less.
The legislation seeks to streamline the building process for developers, as they would not need to undergo another federal environmental analysis unless their project failed to meet certain benchmarks.
“It’s as simple as this poster demonstrates: As easy as putting a portable generator into moving canal water,” Tipton said on the House floor last Wednesday.
Tipton said the legislation would “foster clean renewable energy development, create jobs in rural America, and do so without taxpayer cost while returning revenues to the Treasury. By all measures, it should be considered low-hanging fruit for congressional action.”
The bill passed 416 to 7. All seven members of Colorado’s congressional delegation voted for the measure. Dan DuBray, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the agency considered the passage of the bill “an encouraging development,” an indication the Obama administration supports the legislation.
Opponents of the bill, all Democrats, suggested it was an end run around federal environmental laws.
“This bill, like many other proposals by my friends on the other side of the aisle, would chip away at the regulatory process for (Environmental Protection Agency) rules. It sets a bad precedent,” Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said in an interview.
Unlike a previous version of the bill, which the House passed in March 2012, the legislation does not give would-be hydropower developers on Bureau of Reclamation sites a waiver from the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act. Tipton added language to the bill on the House floor that eliminated the exemption.
The move drew the support of more than two hundred House Democrats, including that of Rep. Grace Napolitano of California, a key member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
A former co-owner and founder of a pottery store in Cortez, Tipton has made the easing of often restrictive federal rules on small business a hallmark of his two terms in office. He inserted a provision into the bill that would require a less exhaustive environmental review process – known as a categorical exclusion under federal environmental law – for projects that have a capacity of 5 megawatts or less.
“The use of a categorical exclusion for small conduit hydropower development can mean the difference between private investment in a public good with a multitude of benefits, and unreasonable financial costs and lengthy delays that lead to untapped potential, Tipton said last Wednesday.
Irrigation districts, cities, municipalities, co-operatives, and other non-profits could seek to develop hydropower from canals, ditches, and other waterways on Bureau of Reclamation sites. They would lease the land from the federal government, and a Bureau of Reclamation report last year said the U.S. Treasury would gain more than $1 million over ten years if the sites were developed.
Colorado’s hydropower developers and energy consumers would stand to benefit the most from the legislation of the 13 states in the West, as its sites could generate 100.2 million kilowatt hours a year. Wyoming and Oregon came in second and third, according to the Bureau of Reclamation report.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing on the bill April 23. Sen. John Barasso (R-Wy) is the Senate sponsor of the legislation.