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House voting on hydroelectric bill

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

House Democrats on Tuesday derided a bill co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, which seeks to give developers of small hydroelectricity projects that utilize existing Bureau of Reclamation canals and ditches the ability to bypass what Republicans describe as costly and time-consuming environmental reviews.

House GOP members, including Tipton, fired back that the negative comments about House Resolution 2842 were misguided criticisms of simple legislation designed to create jobs throughout the West as well as provide communities with a clean and renewable power source during a time of high energy costs.

Along party lines, Tipton’s bill advanced Tuesday by passing a procedural test. It also survived a proposed amendment from Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., that would have prevented the legislation from taking effect unless the Interior Department determines that the bill would not result in net job losses.

A vote on another Democrat-sponsored amendment that would continue the environmental permitting requirement for hydroelectric projects involving Bureau of Reclamation infrastructure and a vote on the bill itself are expected Wednesday. With Republicans holding a 242-193 advantage in the House, the bill’s chances of passing in its current form are good.

Tipton, who spoke of the bill’s benefits on Saturday during visits in Aspen and Glenwood Springs, was among several GOP House members who lobbied for the bill Tuesday. He described support for last-minute amendments sponsored by Democrats as “standing up for the status quo” and “saying ‘no’ to jobs.”

“We have enough red tape,” said Tipton, who stood next to a poster that estimated the average cost of installing small hydroelectricity equipment at $20,000 but depicted average environmental-permitting costs to be $50,000.

Tipton said his bill would create new jobs not only in the clean-energy arena in his home state but throughout the West, where Bureau of Reclamation conduits – ditches, canals, pipes and the like – carry water from higher elevations down to rivers and streams but do little else.

The first-term congressman’s sprawling 3rd District in Colorado covers much of the Western Slope from Craig to Grand Junction to Durango, including Pitkin County, and also takes in the south-central communities of Alamosa, Pueblo and Trinidad.

Specifically, the bill would exempt certain types of hydroelectric projects from National Environmental Policy Act compliance. Republicans say Bureau of Reclamation infrastructure already has been through the environmental-review process and there’s no reason to force hydropower developers to go through it again because no new land would be disturbed by the projects.

Though the city of Aspen is attempting to move ahead with a hydroelectric project of its own using water from Castle and Maroon creeks, that initiative would not be affected by Tipton’s bill, which relates solely to the use of existing Bureau of Reclamation conduits.

“This bill does not apply to rivers, large dams or natural flowing waters in any way and will not impact fish or wildlife,” Tipton said in a prepared statement following more than an hour of congressional debate on the subject.

“We have an opportunity to join together in this body and pass a common-sense solution that will advance the common goal of developing clean and renewable alternative energy and put into place a key component of the all-of-the-above energy plan,” he added.

During the back-and-forth Tuesday afternoon, Democrats said they wanted “a real jobs bill” rather than what they view as a small feel-good measure with a fancy name offered by Tipton and the GOP. Tipton’s bill is officially called “The Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act of 2012.”

Ellison said that if Republicans were sincere about creating jobs, they would renew the transportation infrastructure jobs program that expires at the end of this month.

“Unfortunately, certain people have used creative titles, deceiving titles in some cases, to try to distract the public,” he said. “Why are we talking about (this) when we need investment in highways, bridges, transit and airports? I’m not here to run down small-conduit hydropower – I just think this is too small.”

Others called the bill’s section to waive a National Environmental Policy Act review an attempt to bypass public input.

“Developers and irrigators need certainty (of no impact to the environment) so their projects can be developed,” said U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif. “Waiving NEPA will not provide the certainty. … It is unfortunate that this legislation contains this controversial waiver.”

Other Democrats said they found it odd that the GOP was pushing its own job-creation bill at a time when the party has sought to stymie many major economic initiatives introduced by the Obama administration and Democrats.

But U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said Tipton’s bill “fights bureaucratic manipulation,” and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said that a second environmental process for previously approved infrastructure “doesn’t make sense.”

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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