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FIRST ON FOX: A top House panel is probing the Biden administration's negotiations with left-wing environmental groups seeking to remove four hydroelectric dams in Washington to protect salmon.

The House Natural Resources Committee's Water, Wildlife, and Fisheries Subcommittee will hold a hearing next week, on Dec. 12, where it will review efforts to effectively dismantle the dams — which are a key source of clean energy and which enable agricultural transport — and related litigation. Experts and industry groups will speak at the hearing about the importance of the four federally-managed dams.

"Pacific Northwest residents should be extremely concerned," Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., who chairs the subcommittee, told Fox News Digital in an interview. "It's exactly what we've been saying for years — that we have unelected folks, bureaucrats, especially in the [Council on Environmental Quality], dramatically exceeding their authority and basically stepping outside the description of what they have the power to do reflected in National Environmental Protection Act."

Bentz said that he hopes witnesses will be able to highlight how removing, or breaching, the dams will impact electricity rates consumers pay and farmers who transport hundreds of thousands of tons of food, especially wheat, aided by the dams. The four dams are located on the lower Snake River, which winds through Idaho and Washington before feeding into the Columbia River and then into the Pacific Ocean.

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Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., is seen outside a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., is seen outside a meeting of the House Republican Conference on Jan. 3, 2023 (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The hearing next week is set to feature Scott Simms, the CEO and executive director of the Public Power Council; Neil Maunu, the executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association; and Humaria Falkenberg, the power resources manager at the Pacific County Public Utility District in Raymond, Washington.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Richard Spinrad and White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chairwoman Brenda Mallory both declined to attend the hearing. John Hairston, the administrator and CEO of the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon, also declined to attend.

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The four dams on the lower Snake River have been thrust into the spotlight in recent months and years as environmental organizations and some Democrats have argued the dams have decimated salmon and Steelhead populations, According to Columbia Riverkeeper, an Oregon eco group, the dams transformed the river into "a series of warm, shallow lakes where predators, dam turbines and hot water kill too many migrating salmon."

In addition, such groups have filed litigation against the federal government in an effort to force the dams to be breached. In November, though, environmental plaintiffs agreed to pause litigation through mid-December after a mediation was crafted with federal defendants that states action must be taken to save fish in the Snake River.

"We agree that business as usual — and the consequential disappearance of salmon and other native fish populations in the Columbia River Basin — is unacceptable," the mediation, which was confidential until it was leaked last week, states. "And while there is still time to save these fish, there is no time to waste."

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam is shown in the Columbia River system in Washington state. (Photo by: Marli Miller/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The mediation notes that Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., released recommendations last year to quickly deploy green energy in the region to account for lost power were the four dams to be torn down. The document later notes the region must account for power to replace energy services currently provided by the dams.

"Instead of working with all interests, the U.S. Government chose for months to hold secret negotiations and refused to share any details with us, let alone allow our participation," said the executive directors of Northwest RiverPartners, the Public Power Council, and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, which collectively represent power utilities, ports, agriculture companies and other businesses dependent on the dams.

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"It is not surprising, then, that this proposal turns its back on over three million electricity customers as well as the farming, transportation, navigation, and economic needs of the region," they continued. "By purposely excluding our respective organizations from the negotiations, literally millions of Northwest residents were deprived of fair representation in this process."

The American Public Power Association and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association also blasted the leaked mediation last week, saying "it would jeopardize electric reliability and increase costs for millions of Americans throughout the Pacific Northwest."

After the mediation was leaked last week, the White House CEQ told Fox News Digital that breaching the lower Snake River dams would require congressional authorization "and is therefore not an action that could be agreed to through the mediation."

President Joe Biden

President Biden has pledged to work with proponents of breaching the four lower Snake River dams to "bring healthy and abundant salmon runs back." (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

However, Bentz said while the federal government isn't able to breach the dams without congressional action, it could "operationally neuter" the dams under a legal order. 

"They're not talking about breaching," Bentz told Fox News Digital. "They're talking about operating them in a fashion that doesn't generate power and doesn't allow navigation. They will just be a big block of concrete in the river, around which the water will run."

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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 hydropower generated by the dams 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.

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. Aided by the dams, barges traveling along the Columbia River system carry about 60% of Washington's annual wheat exports and a staggering 40% of the nation's total wheat production.