Legislative Announcements

Rescissions Package and Appropriations Bills Pass the House

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On June 7, the House of Representatives considered and passed H.R. 3, “the Spending Cuts to Expired and Unnecessary Programs Act.”  This package of nearly $15 billion in rescissions was offered to Congress in May, but recently revised by the Office of Management and Budget in an attempt to win more votes.  Passage fell along party lines, 210-206.  Included in the package were two Department of Energy (DOE) rescissions – $4.3 billion cut from the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan program and $523 million cut from unobligated balances in the Title 17 Loan Guarantee program.  Drawn up as a response to the omnibus bill the President reluctantly signed into law earlier this spring, this rescissions package is being touted by House Republicans and the White House as a first step in reining in federal spending.  Neither Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) nor Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) has expressed whether or when the Senate might take up this package.  

Just after passage of H.R. 3, the House began debate on H.R. 5895, the first of the FY19 appropriations “mini-buses,” comprised of the Energy and Water appropriations bill, the Legislative Branch appropriations bill, and the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill.  Representatives debated and considered a number of amendments on June 7 and 8, and final passage occurred on June 8 with a vote of 235-179.   An amendment eliminating all funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, sponsored by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) was defeated, as were proposals to block or rescind money from the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal project in Nevada.  The House also rejected an amendment from Rep. Gosar to reduce the salary of Mark Gabriel, the administrator of the Western Area Power Administration, to $1.  

Of interest to preference customers, an amendment offered by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and endorsed by NWPPA was adopted that prohibits the use of funds to sell the transmission assets of the three Power Marketing Administrations and the Tennessee Valley Authority.  The prohibition, which passed by voice vote, would last through the fiscal year and harmonizes the House bill with a similar provision in the Senate version.  Rep. Newhouse also secured language in the bill to prevent a court-ordered spill at hydropower dams in the Columbia River basin.

Senate leadership has expressed that they may also consider appropriations bills this summer in minibus form, but details on a package have not yet emerged.

White House Directs DOE to Take Steps to Protect Coal and Nuclear Plants

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

A leaked draft White House memo foreshadowed a June 1 order from the President to have the Department of Energy (DOE) take “immediate steps” to shore up coal and nuclear power plants at risk of retirement, in what is being called a “Strategic Electric Generation Reserve.” The memo relies on both Sec. 202 of the Federal Power Act and the Defense Production Act, authorities related to emergencies and national security, respectively. However, it is not clear what exactly DOE will do in response to the memo and order.

As recently as May 25, news outlets had reported that the National Security Council (NSC) planned to evaluate the reliability risk of coal and nuclear plant retirements and “take the lead” on developing solutions for grid reliability. The President’s action appears to take up the mantle of national security while keeping DOE in the lead. It is also unclear whether there will be a role for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is still grappling with a docket on resilience that resulted from DOE’s previous attempt to keep coal and nuclear plants online by mandating cost recovery in organized markets.  The current effort appears to be broader in scope, rather than tailored to market regions.  However, experts dispute that an acute reliability or national security threat exists outside these regions.

Separately, on June 7, the House Science, Space, & Transportation Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing on “the Grid of the Future.”  Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker of DOE’s Office of Electricity and acting assistant secretary of the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) was among those testifying before the committee.  Walker noted that current initiatives within DOE require “fuel secure generation” to help maintain the electric grid, but expressed limited support for the Administration’s proposal.  When asked if he still believed his previous statement that Sec. 202 is an inappropriate tool to address individual plants’ economic issues, Walker gave terse replies.  Other news reports have indicated high-ranking members of the Trump Administration have misgivings about the proposal, which is being called a “bailout” for economically struggling plants.

House Overwhelmingly Passes Narrowly-Tailored WRDA

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On June 6, the House passed its Water Resources Development Act (H.R. 8), a typically two-year reauthorization bill for Army Corps of Engineers projects, by a vote of 408-2.  The wide margin reflects the bill’s narrow tailoring to authorize just seven new projects, make modest policy reforms at the Corps of Engineers, and avoid controversial riders and amendments.  The bill would require the Corps to find $3 billion in previously authorized projects that are no longer feasible, needed, or supported and prepare a list of such projects for Congressional deauthorization.  It would also require a list of non-powered dams with the greatest potential for hydropower development and allow for at least 60 days of stakeholder engagement before finalizing guidance on laws implemented by the Corps. 

The bill did not include provisions to move the Corps out of the Army and into the Department of Transportation, as proposed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman, but includes a study on the feasibility of such a move.  Of interest to NWPPA, the bill did not become a vehicle for amendments that would use federal hydropower receipts to fund other projects

Senate Committee Releases Farm Bill Text, Changes to RUS Proposed

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

The Senate Agriculture Committee released the text of its version of the Farm Bill on June 8.  In contrast to the House version, the Senate’s bipartisan bill offers mostly modest tweaks to existing farm and nutrition programs.  Of concern to NWPPA, however, the bill proposes changes to the Rural Utility Service (RUS) Cushion of Credit program that may have negative impacts on electric co-ops that utilize the program.  The bill reduces the interest paid cushion of credit deposits from five percent down to the generic five-year treasury note rate (2.75% as of June 8) and prohibits deposits after FY18.  Funds from cushion of credit accounts can only be used to pay RUS debt and at 5% interest, they provided an attractive and cost-efficient option in the limited rural utility financing tool box. 

NWPPA strongly supports the Rural Utility Service as a whole, including the cushion of credit program, and opposes policy changes that weaken the RUS or its effectiveness as a financing option for rural utilities.  The Agriculture Committee is expected to mark up the bill on June 13 and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has indicated it will receive floor consideration before the July 4 recess.  The House version of the Farm Bill, which does not include changes to the RUS or cushion of credit program, failed on the House floor due to united Democratic opposition and intra-GOP disagreements.  It may receive another vote before July 4 as well.

House Committee Examines Hydropower Relicensing

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On June 7, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing entitled “Improving the Hydropower Licensing Process.”  The hearing convened the primary federal stakeholders with witnesses from FERC, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers.  The hearing examined the coordination between these agencies in the licensing process and how to improve synchronization through administrative action, such as President Trump’s “One Federal Decision” Executive Order from August 2017.  Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) spoke to the need to support carbon-free hydropower licensing reform, saying, “unfortunately, the lengthy and unpredictable project licensing process disadvantages hydropower compared to fossil fuel generation and other renewables.” 

Chairman Walden also highlighted legislation the House has passed to support hydro and streamline the permitting process, notably H.R. 3043, “the Hydropower Policy Modernization Act,” sponsored by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).  Although the bill received a handful of Democratic votes on the House floor, Committee Democrats opposed the bill due to concerns it would disproportionately weaken environmental protections.  Ranking Member Bobby Rush (D-IL) welcomed the opportunity to hear from the five agencies at the hearing, but lamented it would have been more helpful to do so before the Committee passed H.R. 3043 last fall.  NWPPA has been an active advocate for hydropower permitting reform and was a key stakeholder in supporting the House passage of H.R. 3043.

House and Senate Panels Scrutinize Wildfire Policy Ahead of 2018 Fire Season

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

House and Senate Committees reviewed federal forest fire policy and preparedness the week of June 4, as wildfire season begins to build with the summer heat.  U.S. Forest Service interim Chief Vicki Christiansen testified in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on June 5 and the House Natural Resources Committee on June 7.  The hearings gave lawmakers a chance to probe how the Forest Service intends to leverage the larger fire suppression budget and additional risk mitigation authority Congress granted the Agency as part of the FY18 omnibus spending legislation in March.  The forest provisions – which included a fix to the way catastrophic firefighting is funded, vegetation management around federal rights of way, and more flexible environmental approvals for mitigating high-risk areas – represented a breakthrough for forest management practices long sought by Western Members of Congress and forestry officials.  Chief Christiansen said the 2018 fire season will be better managed due to the changes and promised committee members the Forest Service was on track to facilitate the largest timber harvest in 20 years, as a result of ramping up forest thinning efforts intended to boost forest health and reduce wildfire risk. 

However, Christiansen argued the limited flexibility under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for clearing dead trees and brush from fire-prone areas is not enough to adequately reduce fire risks.  In California alone, the Agency has estimated there are more than 130 million dead or dying trees which must be harvested within two years to be economically viable.  In addition to harsh environmental damages, catastrophic wildfires pose extreme risks to property and infrastructure, including critical utility infrastructure.  Lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle emphasized the importance of investing in prevention as opposed to suppression.

House Committee Advances Broadband Streamlining Bill

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On June 6, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill sponsored by Rep. John Curtis (R-UT) intended to spur rural broadband development.  H.R. 4824 would streamline some of the federal requirements common to broadband expansion projects in the West that traverse federal lands by providing a “categorical exclusion” under NEPA for developments within existing rights of way.  The bill would also designate the Bureau of Land Management as the lead agency for issuing permits on behalf of all other federal agencies who may be involved in a broadband project, and it would give state and tribal governments the option to take the lead on the permitting process for projects within existing operational rights of way. 

Important to NWPPA, the bill does not venture into the issue of pole attachments and would not affect state-based rule making on the subject or pole-owner consultation requirements.  NWPPA recently weighed in with the Federal Communications Commission about the potential for its broadband deployment efforts to upend local control of poles.

House Appropriations Panel Advances FY19 Interior-Environment Bill

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On June 6, the House Appropriations Committee considered and passed the FY19 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill, by a vote of 25-20.  The bill, funded at $35.25 billion, is equal to the FY18 omnibus funding and $7 billion above the President’s request for FY19.  Of that amount, $3.9 billion was included for combatting and preventing wildfires, and $7.95 billion is for EPA (within 1 percent of FY18 levels)

Though the bill rejected the drastic cuts to environment programs requested by the Trump administration, a number of controversial environmental riders were included in the bill, including a directive to prohibit the listing of the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.  Thirteen amendments were adopted by the panel, on issues such as the Clean Water Act, “Buy America” provisions at EPA, and wild horses and burros.  The House Interior Appropriations bill is now ready for inclusion into a “mini-bus” appropriations vehicle for summer floor consideration.

EPA Requests Comment on Cost-Benefit Analyses

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On June 7, EPA released an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking requesting comment on the way it conducts cost-benefit analyses when developing regulations.  Some statutory provisions require or allow EPA to consider costs and benefits when proposing control technologies, but critics of the prior administration took issue with the agency’s calculations – particularly the use of “co-benefits” to justify the economic costs of new rules.

EPA is taking comment on three main areas of inquiry: (1) the nature and extent of concerns related to possible inconsistent and lack of transparency in considering costs and benefits in the rulemaking process; (2) approaches for increasing consistency and transparency in considering costs and benefits in the rulemaking process; and (3) opportunities and challenges associated with EPA’s approach to cost and benefits in future rulemakings.

FERC and NRC Hold Joint Hearing on Grid Issues

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On June 7, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a joint hearing on a broad range of issues related to the grid.  Commissioners heard from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) on the state of reliability, including an expression of concern around the resource mix changing from baseload to distributed generation.  Several FERC staff presented on the Critical Energy Infrastructure Information (CEII) regulations, resilience in RTO/ISO regions, primary frequency control, and restoration and recovery plans.  NRC staff presented on licensing, renewals and the potential impact on reliability, and small modular reactors.  Longer presentations covered FERC’s recent supply chain standard and NRC cyber security regulations.  The open meeting was followed by a closed briefing on additional topics.

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