WASHINGTON, D.C. – 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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
H.R. 1873 lifts 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.