Western Caucus Members Support Protection of Forests, Power Lines and Communities

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Washington, DC, June 21, 2017 | comments

Today, Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Paul A. Gosar D.D.S. (AZ-04), Chairman Emeritus Steve Pearce (NM-02) and Western Caucus members Rep. Kurt Schrader (OR-05), Rep. Doug LaMalfa (CA-01), GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05), Rep. Doug Lamborn (CO-05) and Rep. Mike Johnson (LA-04)  released the following statements after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass H.R. 1873, the Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act, sponsored by Reps. LaMalfa and Schrader, by a bipartisan vote of 300-118:

“This bill is common sense, plain and simple and I thank my colleagues for leading the charge on this important issue. Maintaining healthy and well-managed rights-of-way is important for many reasons, not the least of which are the safety of our communities and reliable electricity delivery. Rolling the dice on forest safety is not just unwise, it’s flat out irresponsible” said Chairman Gosar. “Unfortunately, inconsistent and unpredictable viewpoints between federal land managers at the Departments of Interior and Agriculture have prevented co-ops from ensuring safety along the corridors, putting many at risk. I am pleased to see this bill passed by the House today and encourage the Senate to quickly do the same.”

“Our bill ensures a safe and secure electric grid for our homes and communities, curbing the potential for blackouts or forest fires,” said Congressman Schrader. “Utility companies will now have a streamlined and consistent process for being able to fulfill their mandated responsibility to keep our communities safe, removing hazardous trees and vegetation before they create costly and deadly damage. Creating this streamlined process will save everyone money, and frankly a lot of heartache. Our bill is a great example of the bipartisan work this Congress can achieve for our neighbors at home when we put common sense ahead of politics and work together.”

“It’s just common sense to remove a tree that is dangerously close to a power line, but current bureaucratic restrictions and red tape make that process much more difficult to do the work than it should be,” said Congressman LaMalfa, a sponsor of the bill. “As a result, delayed removal of hazardous trees can lead to electrical blackouts and forest fires. This is a lose-lose situation for forest health, air quality, habitat and energy reliability, while also leading to higher energy costs for consumers. Our bill solves this problem by streamlining the process for utility companies to remove dead or dying trees that are in danger of falling on a power line and others in need of trimming, while holding the Forest Service accountable for timely approval. I’m pleased this bill passed the House with bipartisan support and I hope the Senate will soon follow.”

“This is a win-win for our federal lands and our electrical grid,” said Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers. “This common sense legislation helps prevent wildfires while ensuring efficient maintenance and operation of our electrical facilities. Thank you to Representative LaMalfa for putting forth a solution that responsibly manages our natural resources while ensuring Americans have access to safe and reliable power.”

Congressman Pearce said, “In 2011, the Las Conchas Fire was started by a tree falling onto a power line – the fire went on to burn 150,000 acres, including 63 homes and a large part of the Santa Clara Pueblo’s watershed. Today’s bill will help improve the safety of electric power lines and decrease the risk of catastrophic forest fire by making sure bureaucratic red tape does not prevent utility companies from managing trees threatening power lines. I’m happy to support this bipartisan bill to protect the power grid and rural communities from the dangers that come from neglected maintenance.”

Congressman Lamborn stated, “As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Water, Power, and Oceans, I am thrilled that we are following through on our commitment to improve the nation’s infrastructure. This week, our subcommittee has produced infrastructure legislation that will cut red tape and improve vegetation management on federal lands. In Colorado, we know the devastating impact that wildfires can have on our communities and the natural beauty of our state. H.R. 1873 will strengthen the electric grid, which will improve overall safety and reduce the chances of electric-caused wildfires.”

“Forcing Utilities to endure lengthy wait times for approval to clear trees growing on power lines is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous,” said Congressman Johnson. “Yet current regulations hinder timely action - another prime example of Washington bureaucracy creating new, unnecessary problems for everyday Americans. This bill removes big government and makes it easier for companies to act appropriately to better protect our communities and our land.”

Background:

This bill specifically addresses electricity rights-of-way (ROW) on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Forest Service manages 155 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands that comprise 192 million acres of land across the United States. On that estate, there are more than 3,000 authorized electric transmission and distribution facilities accounting for nearly 18,000 miles of electric ROWs. Similarly, BLM land amounts to 245 million acres, including over 71,613 miles of electrical transmission and distribution lines with over 15,000 authorizations for electric transmission and distribution facilities. Electricity ratepayers pay for the costs of operating, maintaining and repairing the electricity lines on the ROWs.

ROWs are useful for a wide variety of reasons. Beyond providing a direct and linear path for electricity delivery, electricity rights-of-way also create important wildlife corridors. The National Wild Turkey Foundation remarked that, “the most important turkey use of a ROW is for reproduction. Several studies have found that many hens selected old field vegetation on a ROW for nesting . . . the close proximity of the forest and old field habitat offers a variety of resources (e.g. food) for turkeys and other wildlife . . . the food chain begins with grasses and forbs, which are eaten by rats and rabbits, which are eaten by predators, who might also eat turkey eggs, poults, and adults.” Further, properly managed ROWs can provide excellent habitat for pollinators such as native wild bees, butterflies and beetles, which assist plants in reproduction that in turn lead to the production of an estimated one third of the human food supply.

Active vegetative management along these ROWs is extremely important, including the removal of trees, living, dead or dying, which would contact a power line if not properly maintained. Integrative Vegetative Management (IVM) is the standard utility practice for managing ROWs, and is generally defined as the practice of promoting desirable, stable, low-growing plant communities – that will resist invasion by tall growing tree species- through the use of appropriate, environmentally sound, and cost-effective control methods.”

Electric utilities must seek permission and approval from the appropriate federal land management agency (Forest Service or BLM) for their proposed vegetative management plan. These proposals are subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) to ensure that the provisions in these proposals comply with federal environmental laws. Although ROW corridors comprise a small fraction of all federal land, the impacts of mismanagement can be significant and catastrophic if a fire spreads to the surrounding land.

In August 2006, three power lines in the Pacific Northwest sagged and came into contact with untrimmed trees resulting in a blackout that impacted 7.5 million people across 14 Western states, two Canadian Provinces and part of Mexico. And in August 200, a falling tree spurred a blackout for more than 50 million electricity customers across the Northeastern and Midwest states.

As a result, what was then called the North American Electric Reliability Council finalized vegetative management standards for the electric industry. Additionally, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which created nationwide mandatory electricity reliability standards to avoid widespread blackouts. Section 1211 of that legislation includes the following provision to preserve grid reliability:

Federal agencies responsible for approving access to electric transmission or distribution facilities located on lands within the United States shall, in accordance with applicable law, expedite any Federal agency approvals that are necessary to allow the owners or operators of such facilities to comply with any reliability standard, approved by the Commission under section 215 of the Federal Power Act, that pertains to vegetation management, electric service restoration, or resolution of situations that imminently endanger the reliability or safety of the facilities.

Despite these efforts, vegetation continues to come into contact with power lines. According to the Committee Report, “The Forest Service reported 113 and 232 wildfires in 2013 and 2012, respectively, caused by contact between power lines and trees on its lands.” Some electricity providers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have voiced concerns that federal land agencies have either provided contradictory guidance, have simply not allowed utilities to carry out vegetative management policies in a timely manner, or have caused a redundancy in reviews and work requirements that add unnecessary delays.

These delays, inconsistencies and redundancies can cause significant financial issues for utilities. Not only must these utilities manage the vegetation that exists within the ROW, but, under current law, they are also threatened with liability for any fires on federal lands that are caused by trees that are within or near the ROW. Unfortunately, denied requests to remove or prune hazardous or high-risk trees in some cases have directly resulted in fires.

Several years ago, Midstate Electric Cooperative in Oregon submitted a request to the Forest Service to remove several high-risk trees and their request was denied. Not long afterward, a tree in question fell onto the power line and sparked a fire. Due to current stipulations in law Midstate was held liable and was forced to pay $326,850 in damages.

H.R. 1873 lift the onus of liability from electric utilities if the federal government failed to permit the utility to manage the vegetation on or adjacent to the ROW. Specifically, an electric utility may prune or remove a hazardous tree that has either made contact or is imminently in danger of making contact with a power line and must notify either the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture within 24 hours. Further, should the utility be prevented from implementing an approved management plan on or adjacent to federal lands, or if one of the Secretaries prevents them from removing a tree that has been identified as a hazard or is in imminent danger of becoming one, they shall not be held liable for any resulting wildfire damage and loss or injury.

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