Calling for Honesty in Dams Fight as Biden, Inslee Urge Climate Action in Glasgow

The following is an op-ed written by Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05) published in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin on Sunday, November 14, 2021.

As Governor Jay Inslee and President Joe Biden use the United Nations Climate Change Conference to make the case for their radical environmental policies, we should all be looking to the recent major developments in the fight over the Lower Snake River Dams and examining whether they are being honest brokers in the climate conversation.

We recently saw major coverage of the Department of Justice’s settlement agreement on injunctive relief and a stay in the litigation over the Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement. Local journalists also extensively covered Governor Inslee and Senator Murray’s recent announcement of plans to study how the benefits of the Lower Snake River Dams could be replaced.

Unfortunately, missing from these stories is the lack of intellectual honesty we’re seeing from leaders in our state, the Biden administration, and groups that are prioritizing dam removal over salmon recovery. I, too, believe we must work to bring down carbon emissions, and hydropower is critical to that goal.

In April, the Biden Administration set a goal of achieving a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Yet, his administration is backing away from 8,500 average megawatts of carbon-free hydropower generated on the Columbia River System.

“[M]issing from these stories is the lack of intellectual honesty we’re seeing from leaders in our state, the Biden administration, and groups that are prioritizing dam removal over salmon recovery.”

Included in the administration’s emissions reduction goal is an effort to “reduce carbon pollution from the transportation sector,” then it’s simultaneously making back-door deals with groups advocating for removing the Lower Snake River Dams that provide that very benefit. For example, the dams serve as critical infrastructure for barging that keeps 150,000 semi trucks off of the roads, 39,000 train cars off rails, and 1.25 million tons of carbon out of the air each year.

Believe it or not, Governor Inslee’s goals are even loftier — setting his sights on statewide carbon neutrality by 2030. Clean hydropower has been vital to the state achieving 75% net renewable energy generation. In fact hydropower accounts for roughly 70% of our energy portfolio. How exactly does Governor Inslee suggest we find “reasonable means for replacing the benefits” the Lower Snake River dams provide?

There have already been numerous studies on replacing the 1,000 average megawatts of clean energy generated by the dams annually. The likeliest scenario is that the hydropower would be replaced by other sources, which could increase the region’s carbon emissions by 2-2.6 million metric tons annually.

“[H]ydropower accounts for roughly 70% of our energy portfolio. How exactly does Governor Inslee suggest we find “reasonable means for replacing the benefits” the Lower Snake River dams provide?”

Let’s do that math: 8,500 megawatts of carbon-free hydropower generated by the Columbia River System, minus the 1,000 megawatts produced by the Lower Snake River Dams on average, equals 7,500 megawatts of clean power. Add back 1.25 million tons of carbon emissions from more trucks and trains transporting agricultural goods, plus another 2.6 million tons from replacing the lost hydropower. You tell me — are we getting any closer to Biden and Inslee’s 2030 climate goals?

Some might say, “What about wind and solar? We can replace the hydropower with wind, solar, and batteries!” This line of thinking completely ignores the unique and critical benefit that hydropower offers that cannot be matched by wind and solar energy. Hydropower is uniquely valuable because it can be deployed at a moment’s notice. Wind and solar are extremely limited. When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, these resources are not producing electricity. You can’t just flip the switch to generate more energy when needed like you can with hydropower or other baseload sources.

As of 2016, 4,800 megawatts of wind generation was connected to the Bonneville Power Administration’s system. However, it must be complemented with other power sources to ensure baseload power needs can be met. After all, when we flip the light switch, we want the lights to actually come on. The Lower Snake River dams supply up to a quarter of BPA’s operating reserves. We’re fortunate they have the ability to generate over 3,000 megawatts, and just this past winter, the dams supplied 1,700 megawatts of electricity during the severe winter storm in February. Considering the system has typically only relied on the dams for 1,000 megawatts annually, 1,700 megawatts was a huge contribution. Claiming the dams kept the lights and the heat on this winter is not hyperbole.

“Hydropower is uniquely valuable because it can be deployed at a moment’s notice. Wind and solar are extremely limited. When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, these resources are not producing electricity.”

Some have indicated a warming ocean is the single biggest threat to salmon, a problem that would be made worse by tearing out clean, renewable hydropower and replacing it with resources that increase carbon emissions. While all eyes are on Glasgow, we’re continuing to call for all parties interested in salmon recovery to stop prioritizing flashy PR campaigns and feature films over the solutions that are actually going to get results for salmon. A good start would be acknowledging that pulling up to 3,000 megawatts of clean energy off of the grid – and adding as much as 3.85 million tons of carbon emissions into the air each year – is the opposite of a solution.

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