The environmental tradeoffs of removing the Snake River Dams

Mar 15, 2017

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* This appeared as original content in the Idaho Law Review


Called by some the most important environmental issue we face, climate change has recently dominated environmental policy debate in the Northwest, the United States, and the world. Signed by more than 160 countries on Earth Day 2016, the Paris Climate Accord lays out the need to take action to reduce carbon emissions. Noting that “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries,” the accord commits signatories to reduce carbon emissions using a range of techniques. President Obama added his voice in a speech to the Coast Guard Academy, telling them, “climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security.” Washington Governor Jay Inslee has been even more emphatic, making climate change “the single most important issue for he and his cabinet.”

That important context has, however, been a side discussion in the debate about removing the four Lower Snake River dams and the carbon-free energy they provide. Although the impact of the dams on the environment has been debated for over a decade, much of the focus has, instead, been on the claimed impact to salmon, or the benefit to transportation and the economy of the region. On the one side, environmental activists like Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard argue tearing down the dams will provide “opportunities for the revival of endangered salmon populations.” Those who rely on the dams for navigation, like the Northwest RiverPartners note that “[t]he Columbia and Snake River system provide the primary route for delivering Northwest goods and products to national and international markets.”

Additionally, both sides have addressed the issue of hydro power and its role in determining the future of the dams. Northwest RiverPartners notes, “it’s hydropower that supplies 90 percent of the region’s renewable energy,” not wind or solar. Environ-mental groups, however, respond that the amount of power provided by the dams is a small portion of the Northwest’s power, claiming they “provide marginal (and replaceable) electricity.”

Despite that, the analysis of the impact of removing the dams on carbon emissions has been limited. Calculations of the value of the dams must include more than just the price to replace that electricity and what it costs to maintain them. A thorough environmental analysis of the impact of removing the dams on carbon emissions must also consider potential increases in carbon emissions from the loss the dams. Considering these costs is about more than just economic impact; it is about increasing electricity costs to consumers and businesses. It also bears directly on the environmental funding available for other efforts in Washington state. Taxes and income that pay for energy to replace the lost carbonfree energy are funds that cannot go to pay for salmon-recovery projects or other environmental restoration. Rather than being separate considerations, efforts to reduce carbon emissions and efforts to help improve salmon runs are both dependent on funding for environmental projects.

In this piece, we will analyze the cost of replacing the energy and fully mitigating the carbon emissions associated with replacing energy lost from removal of the four Lower Snake River dams. Offering a range of costs for replacing the dams will provide a useful metric to understand how best to provide overall environmental benefit for salmon and other species. After taking into account the costs associated with removing the Snake River Dams, it becomes clear that the cost is very high for both the economy and the climate. Indeed, dam removal would eliminate carbon-free energy greater than the entire stock of wind and solar energy in Washington, and oblige utilities to replace a relatively low-cost source of energy with high cost alternatives, with no carbon-reduction benefit.

It must be noted that the decision about removing the dams is not entirely objective. Some people simply value the notion of freeflowing rivers more than others. Concurrently, others value a robust farming economy that exists in Southwest Washington and Northern Idaho. Those considerations provide a baseline for many other decisions about the value of the dams. For this reason, this analysis does not claim to be a mathematical calculation of the overall benefits and costs of removing the dams. Despite that ambiguity, however, providing a solid foundation of data about the economic and climate costs of losing the dams will help narrow and refine the debate.

Download file Download the full study here.

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