Rise in Lobbying on Disaster Planning After Hurricanes, Wildfires

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By Rebecca Kern

Utilities, energy companies, and environmentalists amped up their advocacy for federal support to areas hit by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and the wildfires in the West, as the number of lobbying filings for disaster planning increased at the end of 2017.

Both the hurricane and wildfire seasons were reported as being among the costliest on record.

Environmental and utility groups and energy companies such as Sunrun Inc. say funding for disaster recovery and mitigation planning is more important than ever, given that scientists have reported that climate change has increased the frequency and strength of some of extreme weather events.

Bump in Lobbying Filings

The number of lobbying filings mentioning the issue area of disaster planning increased from 171 filings in the third quarter of 2017 to 216 filings in fourth quarter of 2017, a 26 percent increase, according to Bloomberg Government analysis of Senate lobbying disclosure data from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2017.

This quarter covered the time period after Hurricane Harvey (Aug. 25), Hurricane Irma (Sept. 10) and Hurricane Maria (Sept. 20), and included the California wildfires that started in October. The majority of lobbying by utilities, energy companies, and environmentalists addressed supplemental funding packages for disaster recovery, as well as funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

When it came to lobbying on the supplemental disaster relief packages in Congress, the Sierra Club emphasized rebuilding efforts that withstand future extreme weather events.

“At the end of the day, the was a lot of bipartisan agreement that when an area is destroyed by a hurricane or anything like that, we need to think about building back better and stronger,” Liz Perera, Sierra Club’s climate policy director, told Bloomberg Environment.

The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, the ultimate owner of Bloomberg Environment.

Additionally, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents 900 consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric coops and public utility districts, lobbied for additional funding for FEMA to mitigate against natural disasters.

“We at the federal level have been pushing to ensure FEMA programs also reward and promote preventive measures and not just after-the-fact recovery,” Kirk Johnson, senior vice president for government relations for the NRECA told Bloomberg Environment.

Disaster Funding

Sunrun Inc., a residential solar company that sells combined solar and battery storage systems, lobbied specifically for disaster recovery funding for Puerto Rico last quarter.

The island still has just about 85 percent of its electricity generation online, nearly six months after Hurricane Maria wiped out its grid. The company has donated its solar plus battery technologies to several fire stations in Puerto Rico and has plans to install more in the coming months.

“These natural disasters are not going to slow down, in fact they’re probably going to speed up,” Christopher Rauscher, Sunrun’s director of public policy, told Bloomberg Environment. “We’re talking to homeowners, and they’re asking for good backup options, and this equipment happens to be incredibly resilient and reliable.”

Sunrun and other environmental and utility groups applauded Congress’ passage of the two-year spending bill in early February, which provided nearly $90 billion in disaster recovery funding, including $2 billion to spend on electricity infrastructure recovery in Puerto Rico.

Rauscher said the $2 billion “is not enough, but it definitely is going to help.”

Likewise, Brian Siu, director of federal affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg Environment, “We think a lot more needs to be done.”

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello is waiting for Puerto Rico’s revised fiscal plan that includes new funding from the spending bill to be certified by the territory’s oversight board. Rossello has said he needs $94 billion in federal support for recovery post Hurricane Maria.

California Wildfires

The wildfires that ravaged California destroyed more than 1,000 structures and have cost the state billions of dollars.

For Pacific Gas and Electric—which provides electricity to northern and central California—recovery funds and legislation to help with vegetation management to prevent future wildfires were areas the utility lobbied on last quarter.

“For the 2017 wildfires, our view is that climate changes is real, it’s affecting our communities, and as a result we need to increase our resiliency and we’re also unfortunately going to see more of these events,” Jessica Hogle, senior director of federal affairs at Pacific Gas and Electric, told Bloomberg Environment.

“We’re going to continue to look for ways at the federal level to engage in increased resilience and policies to be able to do that,” she added.

The utility lobbied in support of the Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act, H.R. 1873, which passed the House in June. It provides utilities the ability to perform routine maintenance activities and hazard tree removal within transmission distribution rights of way on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands by notifying the federal agencies.

The bill also limits the liability of the owner or operator in the event that it is not allowed to properly manage trees in imminent danger of contacting electricity lines on federal land.

“It passed the House with 300 votes in a really bipartisan way, so we are hopeful the Senate will consider that and we can move forward before the end of this Congress,” Hogle said.

She said PG&E also supported the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 2862, S. 1842), which hasn’t passed either house of Congress, but would enable additional appropriations to Agriculture or Interior Departments to fund wildfire suppression operations.

She said PG&E has also been working with the state of California, including providing funds to grant programs to ensure communities best practices in place to increase resiliency planning.

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