The Biden administration is quietly discussing a potentially far-reaching settlement with environmental groups that advocate for tearing down four hydroelectric dams in Washington to protect salmon.
Federal attorneys representing the government said it had "developed a package of actions and commitments" and agreed to pause litigation with environmental activist plaintiffs in the case, according to court documents filed late last month. In the filings, jointly submitted by the federal government and eco groups, the parties said they could request a multiyear pause on the litigation to allow for the implementation of the package as soon as Dec. 15, 2023.
However, the filing failed to detail exactly what conditions were included in the secretive package developed. The groups involved in the case have vehemently argued in favor of breaching the four federally managed dams amid declining salmon populations in the lower Snake River, which winds through Idaho and southwestern Washington before feeding into the Columbia River and then into the Pacific Ocean.
"We find it necessary to remind you Congress alone has the authority not only to order the breach of the Lower Snake River Dams, but also exclusive authority to direct the study of breaching or to authorize replacement resources," four House Republicans from the Pacific Northwest led by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., wrote to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) on Monday.
"This is statutory fact, and we warn the Administration not to attempt to circumvent that fact through clever wordsmithing," the lawmakers continued, noting they have received a "plethora" of complaints from stakeholders and constituents about the federal government's secretive negotiations on the matter.
The CEQ and Department of the Interior have for months engaged with the plaintiff groups but have stopped short of endorsing tearing the dams down. President Biden, though, said in March he would work with proponents of breaching — Indigenous tribes and Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho — to "bring healthy and abundant salmon runs back" to the Columbia River system.
However, he didn't pledge to work with Newhouse, the other lawmakers who signed his letter Monday or industry groups like the Public Power Council (PPC), all of which have opposed breaching the dams. The PPC represents consumer-owned utilities in the Pacific Northwest on key issues, such as preserving the Federal Columbia River Power System, and is an intervenor-defendant in the ongoing litigation.
"The people of the Pacific Northwest have really been let down by this so-called process being run by the Council on Environmental Quality," said PPC CEO and Executive Director Scott Simms in a press statement. "Our non-profit, community-owned member utilities and their customers were never given a real chance from the get-go, as we just recently learned a few parties in the litigation were working secretly with the federal government for more than six months on a ‘package of actions and commitments.’"
"We can’t wait for the day when the current confidentiality gag order is lifted on those proposed actions and commitments and everyone gets to see for themselves the level of uncertainty and prospective new costs that are being proposed for Northwest citizens as a result of these secret dealings," he continued.
In recent years, multiple government and private reports have determined that breaching the dams would have a dramatic negative impact on energy production, climate goals and transportation in Washington.
The dams were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers primarily to ensure the Snake River was passable for barge transportation. However, since then, the main benefit has been their reliable clean energy output. They still provide about 8% of the state's electricity, enough to serve millions of residents, and have a large total capacity of 3,000 megawatts.
Removing the dams would also likely chip away at U.S. climate goals since their energy production would likely need to be replaced by fossil fuel alternatives. According to federal data, replacing the hydropower with natural gas generation would increase carbon emissions by up to 2.6 million metric tons per year, the equivalent of 421,000 passenger cars.
"Despite our organization's extensive efforts to contribute as industry and subject matter experts, our input was overlooked for months while the plaintiffs engaged in secretive negotiations with the Council on Environmental Quality," added Neil Maunu, the executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, in the press statement.
"This failure to consider the expertise and perspective of our members who rely on the critical navigation services provided by the system has left us with grave concerns about the credibility and fairness of the resulting package of actions and commitments," Maunu continued. "We urge transparency and fairness in this process and call on this administration to do so."
In addition to the impacts on energy and climate ambitions, industry groups have argued that removing the four Snake River dams would disrupt the economy and harm agriculture exports.
The river system notably feeds the largest U.S. wheat export gateway. Aided by the dams, barges traveling along the Columbia River system carry about 60% of Washington's annual wheat exports. A staggering 40% of the nation's total wheat production, valued at billions of dollars, travels through the river system.
"We have said all along that healthy salmon and dams can coexist, but this can only happen through cooperative work and the ability for all stakeholders to come together in a productive way," Michelle Hennings, the executive director of the Washington Wheat Association, said in a statement. "Lack of clear direction and transparency from the Federal government only hinders the ability of that progress."
In a statement, a White House CEQ spokesperson told Fox News Digital that the administration is committed to balancing the wildlife, agriculture and clean energy needs of the Pacific Northwest. However, they declined to share the details of the agreement with environmental groups, citing a confidentiality agreement.
"At President Biden’s direction, the Biden-Harris Administration has made a historic commitment to prioritize the restoration of healthy and abundant wild salmon, steelhead, and other native fish to the Columbia River Basin while delivering affordable and reliable clean energy, supporting the local agriculture economy, and meeting the many resilience needs of the region," the spokesperson said.
"Consistent with this direction, the Biden-Harris Administration is committed to honoring the United States’ obligations to Tribal Nations and, at the same time, recognizing the important benefits that the Columbia River provides to communities and businesses," the spokesperson continued.
"As part of the court-approved confidential mediation with Tribes, States, and other parties to develop a long-term, durable path forward, the U.S. Government has developed a package of actions and commitments that we are discussing with all parties involved in the mediation. Details on the new actions and commitments will be public once the agreement is finalized."
And Earthjustice, one of the activist groups that entered into the agreement with the federal government, told Fox News Digital that the "package of actions and commitments remains confidential at this point, and we cannot provide any detail beyond what is in the filings with the court."