Bipartisan legislation has been filed in the U.S. House of Representatives to boost the safety and reliability of the electric grid on federal lands by reducing threats from wildfires.
H.R. 1873, the "Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act," introduced April 4 by Reps. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., would change parts of a 1976 law to ease the vegetation management process to prevent wildfires near electric transmission and distribution facilities.
The bill would remove "red tape" hampering the abilities of utilities to clear hazardous trees and brush, which will reduce "catastrophic wildfires and costly electricity blackouts," the lawmakers said. The bill would also cut costs for the U.S. Forest Service.
"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," LaMalfa said. "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."
Properly maintained rights-of-way are crucial for public safety and enhancing the reliability of our electrical grid, according to Schrader, who called the bill a "no brainer." Utilities need a "streamlined and consistent process" for hazardous vegetation removal, according to Schrader. He said that while state and federal laws call for regular maintenance on federal lands, "bureaucratic red tape" from federal agencies has caused the process to drag out, interfering in utilities’ ability to reliably deliver electricity.
The American Public Power Association supports the measure. In a letter to the lawmakers, APPA said the U.S. Department of Energy noted in its 2015 Quadrennial Energy Review that the Northeast power blackout in August 2003 was due to inadequate vegetation management.
APPA maintained that when the cause of the blackout was investigated, federally managed rights-of-way were found to be "particularly problematic" because of permitting and environmental requirements that are "inconsistent and time-consuming."
Utilities currently cannot remove hazardous vegetation beyond their own easement, which the organization asserted is a major roadblock to protecting electrical infrastructure. "Not only must long-reaching tree branches be pruned to avoid contact with transmission lines, but brush and other ground vegetation must be periodically cleared from the base of transmission towers to minimize the effects of fire," the group said.