Wildfire Bill Shifting Liabilities From Utilities Passes House

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By Catherine Douglas Moran

Utility companies would be allowed to remove trees and other vegetation near transmission lines and could in some cases be shielded from liability for attempting to prevent wildfire damages under a bill passed by the House June 21.

The Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act (H.R. 1873), authored by Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), passed by a vote of 300-118. Its outlook in the Senate is unclear, largely because no companion measure has been introduced there.

The bill is meant to reduce the need for case-by-case or annual approvals by establishing routine inspection and management of vegetation near electrical wires. The bill expedites review and approval for utility companies to prune or remove fire hazards.

“The bill allows for sensible procedures that would cut through federal bureaucratic red tape and reduce delays that currently impede our ability to adequately manage dangerous vegetative overgrowth in existing utility rights of way,” Jim Matheson, chief executive officer for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, wrote in a June 19 letter supporting the bill.

The bill would also require federal agencies that manage public lands such as the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management to take responsibility for any costs associated with failure to remove a tree or vegetation if the utility request to do such clearing is denied.

Two amendments were adopted before the vote. One offered by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) would ensure that nothing under the bill would take away funding or resources authorized for wildfire suppression efforts. The second, by Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), would ensure training is provided to Interior Department and Forest Service employees on the use of unmanned technologies to help electric utilities identify fire hazards.

Ending Bureaucratic Shuffle

LaMalfa told Bloomberg BNA that his bill is meant to end the bureaucratic shuffle that can delay utility companies from responding to vegetation fire risks for up to six months, which may result in blackouts from downed power lines.

“The problem is you have a fire, you have the blackout, and someone comes back and sues the power company even though they were trying” to address the hazards, he told Bloomberg BNA.

The Western Governors’ Association, the Edison Electric Institute, and the American Public Power Association have endorsed the legislation.

Some Environmental Concerns

Matheson wrote in his letter that such delays “not only add to the costs our electric consumers pay for their electricity, but present a major threat to human safety, wildlife habitat, and the reliable delivery of electricity.”

LaMalfa said the bill does not allow widespread clearing of forests, as critics of the bill—including environmental groups—have suggested.

“Are we cutting every tree from here to Wyoming? No.” LaMalfa said. “We’re not taking down an entire forest, but an established agreed-upon buffer.”

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) told Bloomberg BNA that the bill is designed to prevent fires by addressing hazards ahead of time.

“One of the arguments against the bill was we should be dealing with wildfires in terms of disasters” after the fact, said Schrader, one of 69 Democrats to support the bill.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill, which would amend the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, would cost $12 million to implement over the 2018-2022 period.

To contact the reporter on this story: Catherine Douglas Moran in Washington at cmoran@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act is available at http://src.bna.com/p50.

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