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McMorris Rodgers hopes to help reset energy policy, if she heads House energy committee

U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers

If U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is appointed as the new head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, she said she has big plans for the country’s energy landscape.

McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, is expected to chair the committee if the Republican Party wins control of the House. McMorris Rodgers would be the first woman to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“When I first got elected to Congress a while ago, I remember Sen. Slade Gorton telling me, ‘You gotta get on Energy and Commerce Committee. He just felt like there was no other committee on Capitol Hill that would compare,” McMorris Rodgers said of the Washington Republican’s advice in 2004.

McMorris Rodgers spoke the day after the 2022 U.S. midterm elections at an Energy Solutions Summit in the Tri-Cities hosted by the Association of Washington Businesses.

Energy touches on all aspects of American life and standards of living, McMorris Rodgers said. As the new chairperson, she said she would focus on new energy technology, such as advanced nuclear power, and oil and natural gas production in the U.S.

“Let’s make sure that we are embracing an agenda that is going to encourage American ingenuity, technology innovation, an all of the above energy strategy, meet our energy needs, and continue to make sure that we’re strong. We’ll get to reset the stage on all of this,” she said Wednesday, referring to current energy policies.

What McMorris Rodgers said she doesn’t want to do is pick winners and losers in the energy market. Instead of pushing renewable energy development, the U.S. energy strategy also needs to include fossil fuel production, she said.

“As a government, we have decided that we want to go all in on wind and solar and electric vehicles. Those supply chains are controlled by China right now. So, who’s really benefiting from this?” McMorris Rodgers told the conference.

Washington and Oregon have set clean energy policies that require electricity from carbon-free sources. Washington must reach its zero-emissions standards by 2045. Oregon’s renewable energy portfolio requires half of its electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2040.

The biggest barrier to “unleashing American energy,” McMorris Rodgers said, is the length of the permitting process for any project that requires federal funding. For example, she said, relicensing a dam takes on average 10 years, while a solar farm takes three years to license.

“There are some reforms we can make that would allow us to move projects forward in a more efficient way,” she said of the National Environmental Policy Act, which guides federal agencies as they assess the environmental effects of potential decisions.

As an example, she said Amazon hoped to build solar farms to reach a renewable energy goal by 2025. However, she said Amazon officials told her they wouldn’t be able to build solar farms as quickly as company officials had hoped because the permitting process takes too long.

In addition, she recommended hydropower relicensing reform, which is legislation that she introduces every session. With her support, legislation passed to expedite small hydropower dams of 5 megawatts less, including dams in irrigation canals.

“Hydropower remains the largest renewable in the United States of America,” McMorris Rodgers said. “Only 3% of the dams produce hydroelectricity. We could double hydropower in the United States without even building a new dam.”

According to the Department of Energy, every state but Mississippi and Delaware use hydropower. Nationwide, hydropower makes up about 6.3% of total electricity generation. As a large hydropower producer, around 66% of Washington state’s electricity came from hydropower in 2020.

It’s that hydropower in Washington that McMorris Rodgers said she would like to protect. McMorris Rodgers and fellow Washington Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse have ardently supported the Snake River dams in southeastern Washington.

“The Columbia-Snake River system, the investment that was made, transformed our region from a dry, barren sagebrush region to one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world,” she said.

Despite McMorris Rodgers’ stance, fish advocates assert the four dams on the Lower Snake need to be removed or altered to save endangered salmon runs in the river. However, McMorris Rodgers equated removing the dams to protect salmon to the Timber Wars of the 1990s that ignited from efforts to protect northern spotted owls, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

However, renewable energy advocates McMorris Rodgers' energy policies out of step with the Northwest’s energy goals in response to comments about Cathy McMorris Rodgers' energy policies.

“Cathy McMorris Rodgers and other Congressional Republicans support a status quo energy policy that does not make progress on key issues that have broad support in the Northwest, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing clean energy, and recovering native fisheries. Their energy policy ideas are simply out of step with where the region is headed – toward an equitable clean energy future that delivers economic, health, and environmental benefits, while promoting environmental justice and honoring Tribal sovereignty,” said Lauren McCloy, policy director with NW Energy Coalition, a renewable advocacy group, in an email.

In addition, McMorris Rodgers criticized a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that concluded the dams need to be breached to ensure healthy and harvestable populations of salmon on the Snake River.

As chairperson of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, McMorris Rodgers said she would be able to subpoena members of White House Council on Environmental Quality, which is coordinating a federal interagency initiative to restore salmon in the Columbia River Basin.

“One thing about having a gavel is you not only get to set the agenda and the hearing schedule, but you have the ability to subpoena people if they will not cooperate in answering questions,” McMorris Rodgers said of Council on Environmental Quality officials.

In addition, when asked about Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and his support for removing the four Lower Snake River dams, McMorris Rodgers said she would be willing to come to the table to find solutions best for the Northwest.

“I would encourage all of us to stay very close to Mike Simpson. Stay close to the entire delegation,” she said.

Instead of plans for the Snake River dams imposed on people in Eastern Washington, she said the congressional delegation should work together.

“When you think of Washington state, hydropower is so foundational,” she said.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.