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ICYMI: Lawmakers urge agencies to cut red tape on power-line maintenance

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 24, 2014 - ICYMI: Lawmakers urge agencies to cut red tape on power-line maintenance
Phil Taylor
E&E Daily
Published: Thursday, May 8, 2014

In a rare show of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee yesterday urged federal agencies to make it easier for utilities to manage power lines crossing federal forests.

The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management were accused of being too slow and burdensome in allowing electric companies to conduct routine maintenance and clear hazard trees from their power lines.

In another case, a federal power marketing agency was asked to reapply for rights of way through federal lands that it has owned for several decades.

The delays threaten to harm utility ratepayers, cause blackouts or spark wildfires that can further damage transmission infrastructure and wildlife habitat, members and witnesses warned.

"It's pretty amazing we have to be here again today more than a decade later to try to sort this out among the federal agencies," ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. "I hope we don't have to pass legislation to force common sense on the disparate federal agencies."

Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), who presided over most of the hearing, said testimony by utility officials yesterday showed the "lack of uniformity" in federal policy for reducing the threat of hazard trees to critical infrastructure. It also revealed an "untenable liability" the impedes agencies' ability to clear hazard trees that could spark catastrophic wildfires, he said.

"Under the status quo, determinations about whether or not to address emergency circumstances are too often dependent on the whims of local land managers, and utilities are prohibited from removing hazardous trees that threaten their lines, but are held strictly liable if the federal government fails to do its job and address hazards on lands they manage," Tipton said. "This has to change."

David Markham, CEO of the Central Electric Cooperative Inc. in Oregon, said it had taken the Forest Service nine months to approve his company's request to replace a 2.1-mile section of underground cable immediately adjacent to a well-developed road. Such a request would take a month to process on non-federal lands, he said.

When Central Electric asked to move a power pole 6 feet, the Forest Service said it would require an archaeologist to inspect the site and perform shovel probes.

"We've been doing maintenance on this power line for 50 years and, seriously, if there was a dinosaur fossil or fossilized dinosaur, we would have found it by now," he said, adding that the relationship between utilities and federal lands agencies in Oregon has "really deteriorated."

That spells trouble for ratepayers, considering that 56 percent of the land in Central Electric's service territory is on federal lands, he said.

Randall Miller, a vegetation management specialist for PacifiCorp, said his company's lines cross 33 national forests, about a half-dozen national parks and one wildlife refuge but that even within those, agencies' employees differ in how they process right of way proposals.

"We cannot accept a patchwork of decisionmakers on a local basis who may or may not understand the larger issues or the importance of the electrical grid to us," he said. "We need to have continuity of policy and decisionmaking on federal lands."

The proximity of trees is also a public safety hazard. The Forest Service reported that in 2013, 113 wildfires were ignited as a result of trees contacting power lines or the arcing of electricity from the power lines to vegetation. In 2012, power line corridors were responsible for 232 wildfires.

Jim Pena, associate deputy chief for the Forest Service, said the Agriculture Department estimates that almost 7,000 miles of transmission lines in the West cross national forests at moderate to high fire risk. Those areas will be a concern as drought, extreme heat and high wind conditions exacerbate wildfire threats to utilities.

But he said utilities do not have to wait for agency approval to treat vegetation that poses an imminent threat to transmission lines.

In a couple of cases, the Forest Service is working with utilities to thin trees outside of rights of way to ensure that potential wildfires burn closer to the ground near the power lines.

But he also said he understands the frustrations of utility officials.

"I have no doubt that the stories that were told here are frustrating," he said. "They'd be frustrating to me. ... If I was a district ranger in that position, I'd be embarrassed. I'd want to take action on it. But I also recognize that it's not as simple. Our line officers are asked to do a lot of things at once."

Both Pena and Ed Roberson, BLM's assistant director for renewable resources and planning, said the agencies plan to sign an updated memorandum of understanding later this year with the Edison Electric Institute to set consistent vegetation maintenance standards between federal land management agencies and utilities.

Contact: Committee Press Office 202-226-9019

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