The House votes today on H.R. 1873 the Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act. This bill directly impacts us – we all remember the recent fires and know that we live in a fire prone region; hence this bill is our action item. Quick note on this last minute timing, the majority leader in the House (Kevin McCarthy) puts out the weekly schedule which lists the bills that will be voted on and on which days the vote will occur. This week’s schedule was posted at the beginning of this week hence today is our first action item following my learning of this bill.
H.R. 1873 the Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act bill rests on two premises: 1) the federal government does not have a unified approach for allowing utility companies to clear vegetation near power lines and 2) once plans for vegetation removal are crafted and proposed to the federal government it takes too long for the federal agencies to approve the plan. The bill proposes to resolve these premises by allowing the owner of the right-of-way of the land (this is the energy company) to opt-out of submitting a vegetation removal plan to the US Department of the Interior and the US Department of Agriculture – thus allowing the energy company to clear vegetation on federal lands however the company deems appropriate (it should be noted that this bill does not set a limit on the amount of acreage the utility company could deem necessary to clear, the bill gives the utility company the right to clear “adjacent” land but the term “adjacent” is not defined). At first glance this may not seem like a major change, but the critical change is that currently vegetation plans must be submitted and the plans are evaluated for their impact on the flora as well as fauna that dwell on the federal lands. This calls into question what federal lands are for – are they for the preservation of the environment, are they for the benefit of the American people or are they for corporations or are they for all of these and if so how does one prioritize the differing needs of each of these ‘constituents’?
This bill also gives the energy company the right to remove any vegetation they regard to be an imminent risk to power or distribution lines and within 24 hours after the removal of the vegetation to contact and inform the local authorities.
If the US Department of the Interior or the US Department of Agriculture does not approve a plan the energy company submitted or somehow blocks the removal of an imminent risk and a fire occurs then the energy company bears no legal or fiscal responsibility.
As can be guessed this bill is supported by the energy industry, specifically the Edison Electric Institute, which is an association of all US investor-owned electric companies (SDG&E is a member of Edison Electric Institute), the American Public Power Association, which is an association of community owned electric services (the power departments of Puerto Rico, LA, Sacramento and Seattle, etc… are members of the American Public Power Association) and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which is an association of not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives. The Western Governors’ Association has also endorsed this bill (https://dailyenergyinsider.com/news/4216-bipartisan-bill-increase-safety-reliability-electric-grid-federal-lands-introduced-house/, http://www.eei.org/about/mission/Pages/default.aspx, http://www.eei.org/about/members/uselectriccompanies/Documents/memberlist_print.pdf, http://www.publicpower.org/about/?navItemNumber=37583,http://www.publicpower.org/joinappa/landing.cfm?ItemNumber=32562&navItemNumber=38715,http://www.politico.com/tipsheets/morning-energy/2017/06/20/perry-preps-for-house-grilling-today-220934, https://www.electric.coop/our-mission/).
The arguments for this bill are expressed most clearly and ardently by the bill’s Republican and Democrat co-sponsors. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) states, “This bipartisan legislation is beneficial for everyone involved, decreasing the risk of blackouts, lowering costs for utilities and the Forest Service, and preventing forest fires. A single tree falling on a transmission line can cause blackouts for thousands of homes and spark a fire that devastates a National Forest, but existing red tape can prevent removal of dangerous trees for months. Under this legislation, rural electric co-ops, utilities, and municipal power providers will be able to proactively remove hazardous trees before they become problems, not after they’ve caused a fire. I’m pleased to work with Rep. Schrader and our bipartisan coalition to ensure that the federal government works with electric providers to keep the lights on, protect rural communities, and keep our National Forests safe” and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) opines, “Properly maintained rights-of-way is essential for public safety and enhancing the reliability of our electrical grid. The LaMalfa-Schrader bill is a no-brainer and this should not be controversial. Preventing forest fires and maintaining a reliable electrical grid should be a priority for everybody. Our utilities need a streamlined and consistent process for being able to get out on the ground and remove hazardous vegetation before it can cause a wildfire. This is exactly what our bill does. State and federal laws require routine maintenance on federal lands, but bureaucratic red tape from federal agencies has been stalling that maintenance, slowing down our electrical utilities’ ability to safely supply dependable electricity. As long as there is a management plan in place that has been agreed to, there should be no need to revisit every project when the project conforms with the management plan. Doing so is a waste of money and time, and is extremely dangerous to our grid’s reliability. Our bill will significantly improve the process by providing clearer, more commonsense regulations that will allow for regular maintenance, permitting utilities to provide consistent electricity to all of our communities.” (https://lamalfa.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/lamalfa-and-schrader-introduce-legislation-to-protect-electrical)
The main arguments against this bill are that: 1) this bill gets rid of the public’s right to give & the public’s avenue through which to give feedback on vegetation removal plans, 2) it weakens the National Environmental Policy Act by gutting the informed decision making and public involvement requirements 3) project delays are not due to red tape (a study is cited backing up this claim) and thus this bill will do nothing to expedite vegetation removal projects, 4) approval of submitted plans, which are voluntary to submit, must be approved within 3 days by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, if they are not approved within 3 days then they are approved by default and thus risky projects will be allowed to move forward, 5) the Department of Interior has expressed concerns about this bill and does not support this bill due to point four, 6) this bill does not address the Forest Service’s most critical need, which is increased funding and 7) the bill did not follow the standard protocol of having hearings in all the relevant committees but rather was pushed out of one supportive committee (the House Natural Resources Committee) and rushed to the floor for a vote (http://www.sequoiaforestkeeper.org/pdfs/signon_letters/Oppose_HR_1873.pdf). This bill is opposed by a host of environmental groups, which wrote a letter opposing the bill – see link above, including the Sierra Club. The opponents of the bill strongly agree that there needs to be the removal of vegetation that could cause fires if a power line fell, it is just that they do not agree that this bill would do justice to all concerned constituents, in other words their concern is that this bill puts the needs and desires of the energy companies above the needs and desires of we the people and the environment, both of which the government is mandated to watch out for.
A summary of the bill can be found at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1873?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22HR+1873%22%5D%7D&r=1
The complete bill can be found at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1873/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22HR+1873%22%5D%7D&r=1