Text: S.Hrg. 115-485 — AN EXAMINATION OF VEGETATION MANAGEMENT REQUIREMENTS FOR ELECTRICITY ASSETS LOCATED ON FEDERAL LANDS AND TO RECEIVE TESTIMONY ON SECTION 2310 OF S. 1460, THE ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES ACT OF 2017, AND H.R. 1873, THE ELECTRICITY RELIABILITY AND FOREST PROTECTION ACT
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[Senate Hearing 115-485]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office]
S. Hrg. 115-485
AN EXAMINATION OF VEGETATION MANAGEMENT REQUIREMENTS FOR ELECTRICITY
ASSETS LOCATED ON FEDERAL LANDS, AND TO RECEIVE TESTIMONY ON SECTION
2310 OF S. 1460 AND H.R. 1873
ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES
UNITED STATES SENATE
ONE HUNDRED FIFTEENTH CONGRESS
EXAMINE VEGETATION MANAGEMENT REQUIREMENTS FOR ELECTRICITY ASSETS
LOCATED ON FEDERAL LANDS AND TO RECEIVE TESTIMONY ON SECTION 2310 OF
S. 1460, THE ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES ACT OF 2017, AND H.R. 1873,
THE ELECTRICITY RELIABILITY AND FOREST PROTECTION ACT
SEPTEMBER 19, 2017
[GRAPHIC NOT AVAILABLE IN TIFF FORMAT]
Printed for the use of the
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Available via the World Wide Web: http://www.govinfo.gov
U.S. GOVERNMENT PUBLISHING OFFICE
26-875 WASHINGTON : 2019
COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES
LISA MURKOWSKI, Alaska, Chairman
JOHN BARRASSO, Wyoming MARIA CANTWELL, Washington
JAMES E. RISCH, Idaho RON WYDEN, Oregon
MIKE LEE, Utah BERNARD SANDERS, Vermont
JEFF FLAKE, Arizona DEBBIE STABENOW, Michigan
STEVE DAINES, Montana AL FRANKEN, Minnesota
CORY GARDNER, Colorado JOE MANCHIN III, West Virginia
LAMAR ALEXANDER, Tennessee MARTIN HEINRICH, New Mexico
JOHN HOEVEN, North Dakota MAZIE K. HIRONO, Hawaii
BILL CASSIDY, Louisiana ANGUS S. KING, JR., Maine
ROB PORTMAN, Ohio TAMMY DUCKWORTH, Illinois
LUTHER STRANGE, Alabama CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO, Nevada
Colin Hayes, Staff Director
Patrick J. McCormick III, Chief Counsel
Kellie Donnelly, Deputy Chief Counsel
Lucy Murfitt, Senior Counsel and Public Lands & Natural Resources
Angela Becker-Dippmann, Democratic Staff Director
Sam E. Fowler, Democratic Chief Counsel
Bryan Petit, Democratic Senior Professional Staff Member
Spencer Gray, Democratic Professional Staff Member
C O N T E N T S
Murkowski, Hon. Lisa, Chairman and a U.S. Senator from Alaska.... 1
Cantwell, Hon. Maria, Ranking Member and a U.S. Senator from
Daines, Hon. Steve, a U.S. Senator from Montana.................. 4
Casamassa, Glenn, Associate Deputy Chief, National Forest System,
U.S. Department of Agriculture................................. 5
Ruhs, John, Acting Deputy Director for Operations, Bureau of Land
Management, U.S. Department of the Interior.................... 9
Hayden, Mark C., General Manager, Missoula Electric Cooperative.. 17
Miller, Scott, Senior Regional Director, Southwest Region, The
Wilderness Society............................................. 30
Rable, Andrew, Manager of Forestry and Special Programs, Arizona
Public Service Company, on behalf of Edison Electric Institute. 38
ALPHABETICAL LISTING AND APPENDIX MATERIAL SUBMITTED
Cantwell, Hon. Maria:
Opening Statement............................................ 3
Opening Statement............................................ 5
Written Testimony............................................ 7
Responses to Questions for the Record........................ 58
Daines, Hon. Steve:
Opening Statement............................................ 4
Hayden, Mark C.:
Opening Statement............................................ 17
USDA Forest Service Notice of Indebtedness Letter for the
Benton Rural Electric Association Statement for the Record... 23
Written Testimony............................................ 26
Responses to Questions for the Record........................ 70
LaMalfa, Hon. Doug and Hon. Kurt Schrader:
Letter for the Record........................................ 80
Opening Statement............................................ 30
Written Testimony............................................ 32
Responses to Questions for the Record........................ 73
Murkowski, Hon. Lisa:
Opening Statement............................................ 1
NorthWestern Corporation, d/b/a NorthWestern Energy:
Statement for the Record..................................... 81
Pacific Gas and Electric Company:
Letter for the Record........................................ 84
Opening Statement............................................ 38
Written Testimony............................................ 40
Responses to Questions for the Record........................ 76
Opening Statement............................................ 9
Written Testimony............................................ 11
Responses to Questions for the Record........................ 64
Western Governors' Association:
Letter for the Record........................................ 88
Letter to Hon. Rob Bishop and Hon. Raul Grijalva............. 89
Policy Resolution 2017-10.................................... 91
The text for each of the bills which were addressed in this hearing can
be found on the committee's website at: https://www.energy.senate.gov/
AN EXAMINATION OF VEGETATION MANAGEMENT REQUIREMENTS FOR ELECTRICITY
ASSETS LOCATED ON FEDERAL LANDS AND TO RECEIVE TESTIMONY ON SECTION
2310 OF S. 1460, THE ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES ACT OF 2017, AND H.R.
1873, THE ELECTRICITY RELIABILITY AND FOREST PROTECTION ACT
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2017
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources,
The Committee met, pursuant to notice, at 9:49 a.m. in Room
SD-366, Dirksen Senate Office Building, Hon. Lisa Murkowski,
Chairman of the Committee, presiding.
OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. LISA MURKOWSKI,
U.S. SENATOR FROM ALASKA
The Chairman. The Committee will be back in order as we
begin the full Committee hearing.
We are here to examine how the nation's utilities and our
federal land managers work together to keep the lights on and
to prevent wildfires.
We have certainly seen a lot of the wildfires in the news,
certainly coming out of the State of Montana. It has been a
tough, tough, tough season.
To me, this hearing represents the intersection of the
energy and natural resources components of our Committee's
jurisdiction. We can see that connection with our panelists. We
have representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau
of Land Management, the Arizona Public Service Company, the
Missoula Electric Cooperative and The Wilderness Society with
us here this morning. Welcome to each of you.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have reminded us of the terrible
damage that hurricanes can inflict on power lines and the very
real hardships that people face without electricity.
I was just reading an article a couple days ago about the
debate as to whether or not burying our utility lines can save
us if we have hurricanes with high winds. Yes, it might, but
then what happens when you have flooding? I think it is just a
clear and direct reminder to us that natural disasters come in
various forms and the impact on our power generation is
something that we need to know and understand and try to do
everything that we can to ensure a level of resilience.
We have also spent considerable time examining the ever-
evolving cyber threat to our nation's grid system. But it might
surprise many to learn that the biggest danger that we might
face in keeping the lights on is basic vegetation management
around electricity transmission and distribution lines.
Back in August 2003, a single tree falling into a power
line in Ohio started a cascading East Coast blackout that left
50 million people without power and cost billions in damages.
It was this blackout event that led to the creation of the
Electric Reliability Organization in the Energy Policy Act of
2005 and the imposition of mandatory reliability standards,
including a vegetation management standard on the utility
Failing to keep power lines free of vegetation and so-
called hazard trees can also be a cause of wildfires which,
again, have burned millions of acres in western states this
year. With contact, a power line's energy can transfer to the
vegetation causing sparks and potentially fire. Hundreds of
wildfires have started on federal lands in this way.
Out West our federal forests are overstocked and stressed
by prolonged drought, leaving millions of acres of dead and
dying trees. And many of our Western forests are tinderboxes
for wildfire and a result, while maybe predictable, is just
Given these public safety concerns, utilities face federal,
state and local requirements to maintain their lines. At the
federal level, utilities are subject to fines of up to $1
million per day for ERO standard violations and are strictly
liable for damages that occur on federal lands.
So make no mistake, this is a significant undertaking. With
90,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines located on
federal lands, utilities must cooperate with federal resource
agencies to conduct this important work in a time-sensitive
manner. Unfortunately the Federal Government is not exactly
known for its time sensitivity, and we often find inconsistent
procedures among the various field offices.
Still, under strict liability, a utility and, really, its
customers, may have to pay for damages that were preventable.
Both chambers now have legislation, which we are
considering today, that aim to facilitate vegetation management
activities on federal lands in order to enhance electric
reliability and reduce wildfires. Senator Cantwell and I have
included text in our energy and natural resources bill. The
House has passed its own bill, H.R. 1873, the Electricity
Reliability and Forest Protection Act, with 300 votes from
members on both sides of the aisle. I should note that then-
Representative Zinke, now our Secretary of the Interior,
sponsored the House bill in the last Congress, so I think we
know that he, too, cares about this issue.
The House and Senate measures seek to bring greater
certainty and timeliness to the federal process. Both provide
for emergency situations. While not identical, S. 1460 and H.R.
1873 direct the agencies to consider the categorical exclusion
process for routine vegetation management work and attempt to
bring fairness to the liability question.
These are significant issues, touching on electric system
reliability, wildfire prevention, federal land management,
regulatory compliance, and standards of liability. So, again, I
want to thank our witnesses that are here to share their
expertise with us as we consider them.
Senator Cantwell, thank you for your interest in this, and
your comments please.
STATEMENT OF HON. MARIA CANTWELL,
U.S. SENATOR FROM WASHINGTON
Senator Cantwell. Thank you, Madam Chair.
I am glad we are holding this hearing to discuss real
problems of the West, including the issues of wildfires and
reducing blackouts. I also want to make sure that we are
recognizing that we do need tools to continue to help us deal
with some of the most devastating fire seasons that we have had
over the last several years.
Earlier this month, when the fire season normally is coming
to a close in Washington, most of Seattle awoke to find their
cars covered with ash. So I am working with the Senators here
and my colleague, Senator Murkowski, and others on what we call
``fixing the fire-borrowing problem'' and to proactively, under
the pine pilot, help us do better forest management treatment.
I also want to make sure that we are looking at smart ways
to help when fighting fires and when dealing with blackouts,
and we are going to hear from many experts today about that. I
still remember the blackout of the Northwest in 1996, and there
are many issues related to it and other blackouts.
Operating our electricity grid has some inherent risks, but
we need to make sure that these risks are minimized.
In the energy bill that Senator Murkowski and I put
together, we included language to encourage the Forest Service
and BLM to coordinate better with utilities. Our bill
encourages utilities to develop a comprehensive management plan
for vegetation, to expedite reviews by the Forest Service and
BLM, and to make clear that trees posing an imminent threat to
power lines can be cut immediately, with no prior approval
needed. We apply the same liability standard that oil and
natural gas pipelines receive on federal lands to power lines.
On the other hand, the House bill, I think, has some
problems. For example, it waives all environmental review for
major cuts in rights-of-way. It also waives liability for
utilities in some cases, even when they are grossly negligent.
These issues are incredibly important to get right. I know
that we can get them right. I am so pleased that we just passed
out of the Senate the Sandy bill, which was, I consider, a
related issue--that is FEMA's ability to get lifesaving
communications up and running after a disaster. These
communications are critical to first responders affected by
communities during disaster recovery. We know that phone
service, broadband and TV access are critical to saving lives
and protecting property. This Sandy Act paves the way for
communities to restore those communications and respond more
quickly, certainly with the help of FEMA, and we know that this
is one of the additional challenges we see when transmission
lines burn up during a fire and then we have no communication
We need new tools to fight fires. That is clear, and we
need tools to minimize our risk.
I look forward to hearing from our colleagues. There are
ways to address this, and I think my colleagues and I have
worked on those. We would hope our House colleagues would
become more serious about the recently passed Senate Energy
bill and resolve many, many issues, including this one.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
The Chairman. Thank you, Senator Cantwell.
Again, a welcome to you, gentlemen.
We have before us Mr. Glenn Casamassa, who is the Associate
Deputy Chief for the Forest Service at the U.S. Department of
Agriculture. We have Mr. John Ruhs, who is the Acting Deputy
for the Director of Operations at the Bureau of Land Management
(BLM) at the Interior. Senator Daines, would you like to
introduce our witness from Montana, Mr. Hayden, this morning?
STATEMENT OF STEVE DAINES,
U.S. SENATOR FROM MONTANA
Senator Daines. I would, thank you Chair Murkowski, and
thanks for having this very important hearing on an issue that
is very near and dear to our hearts out in the West, and
particularly in Montana, that is providing statutory relief for
more responsible vegetation management around power lines.
This hearing, the legislative fixes explored today, cannot
be more timely as wildfires in my state have burned well over a
million acres, the equivalent the size of Delaware, and most of
that has occurred on federal land. Over eight million acres
across the West have burned this fire season.
While active treatment could not have prevented every
wildfire, these wildfires are big, they threaten human life and
property, and they also threaten habitat for our iconic
Tragically, we have lost two brave firefighters in Montana
this fire season and with about 18,000 miles of electric
rights-of-way across Forest Service lands nationwide and over
70,000 miles of transmission distribution lines on BLM land--
these fires and a lack of actively treating these trees also
being a real risk to the reliability of electricity for Montana
I remember we had one of our many large fires burning in
Montana in August. I spoke to one of our county commissioners
in Southwest Montana. They were not able to get firefighters
near one of our transmission lines, a high voltage line,
because there was so much smoke and carbon in the air it could
arc from the transmission line down on the ground, posing a
threat to our firefighters. Once the fire began, we could not
get in there and try to protect the transmission lines in that
particular moment because of the threat to our firefighters.
This is why it makes so much sense to be proactive and
preventive, and that is why we are here today, one of the
I am very happy to have Mark Hayden here today from
Missoula. He brings firsthand expertise to this issue and will
speak on the importance of H.R. 1873 today.
Our electric co-ops bring power to 40 percent of our state.
Mark's co-op alone brings power to nearly 15,000 members in
Western Montana and Idaho. Mark is here to speak on the
importance of H.R. 1873, the Electricity Reliability and Forest
Protection Act, to bring much needed clarity on vegetation
treatment and rights-of-way. This bill passed through the House
on June 21st, as the Chairman mentioned, with 300 votes,
including 69 House Democrats.
I look forward to exploring the solution later on today and
hearing Mark's and other witnesses' testimony.
Thank you, Chair Murkowski.
The Chairman. Great. Thank you Senator Daines, and welcome
to you, Mr. Hayden.
The Committee is also joined this morning by Mr. Scott
Miller, who is the Senior Regional Director of the Southwest
Region for The Wilderness Society. Welcome. And the panel is
rounded out with Mr. Andrew----
Mr. Rable. Rable.
The Chairman. ----Rable, who is the Manager for the
Forestry and Special Programs at Arizona Public Service.
We welcome each of you.
Mr. Casamassa, if you would like to lead off. We ask that
you try to keep your comments to about five minutes to give us
plenty of opportunity to ask questions afterwards. Your full
statements will be included as part of the record.
STATEMENT OF GLENN CASAMASSA, ASSOCIATE DEPUTY CHIEF, NATIONAL
FOREST SYSTEM, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
Mr. Casamassa. Madam Chair, Ranking Member Cantwell and
members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to
discuss the efforts of the Forest Service to reduce the threat
of wildfire to and from electrical transmission and
distribution facilities on National Forest System lands.
Reliable delivery of electricity is essential. Fire and
service disruptions resulting from contact between vegetation
and power lines threaten public safety. Forest Service
administers and authorizes for approximately 18,000 miles of
I know utilities are frustrated as a result of the
responses from maintenance approvals and inconsistencies across
our field offices. We are focused on addressing these concerns.
In the past years, we've created guidance and provided guidance
to the field on developing vegetative management plans.
We also completed a master agreement with Pacific Gas and
Electric for the immediate removal of hazard trees within
striking distance of their power lines. To date, Pacific Gas
and Electric has felled 27,000 hazard trees on national forests
We are working on our policy and procedures; however, not
all the work can be accomplished administratively which is why
I support the goals of the two pieces of legislation under
consideration in this hearing, H.R. 1873 and Section 2310 of
Senate bill 1460.
Both of these bills address environmental analysis
requirements related to permits and liability concerns. I'd
like to work with the Committee to develop appropriate
liability provisions and ensure that utilities can develop and
implement operating and maintenance plans efficiently.
We want to be good neighbors and work collaboratively with
both the utility companies and the communities we both serve.
That includes vegetation management agreements that allow
utilities to provide for reliability, minimize the risk of
forest fires and comply with applicable federal, state and
local requirements with minimal agency consultation and
I'll continue to look for opportunities to streamline our
process and become more efficient. Our goal is to make
decisions that authorize projects in a more timely manner,
eliminate unnecessary process and steps, and increase the scale
of our analysis, thereby increasing the amount of on-the-ground
work covered by our analysis and decision-making.
Thank you for the opportunity to present the testimony
today, and I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Casamassa follows:]
[GRAPHIC(S) NOT AVAILABLE IN TIFF FORMAT]
The Chairman. Thank you. We are pleased you are here.
Mr. Ruhs, welcome.
STATEMENT OF JOHN RUHS, ACTING DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR OPERATIONS,
BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
Mr. Ruhs. Good morning, Chairman Murkowski, Ranking Member
Cantwell and members of the Committee. I am John Ruhs, BLM's
Acting Deputy Director for Operations. Thank you for the
opportunity to discuss the very important issue of vegetation
management requirements for electrical transmission rights-of-
way and the legislation before the Committee today.
The BLM shares the sponsor's goals of enhancing electricity
reliability and avoiding fire hazards, and we support both
bills. We would like the opportunity to work with the sponsors
on a few technical recommendations.
The BLM manages about 245 million surface acres and 700
million subsurface acres located primarily in the 12 Western
states, including Alaska. In administering this diverse
portfolio of public lands on behalf of the American people, the
BLM is guided by its multiple use and sustained yield mission
which is mandated by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act
Under FLPMA, rights-of-way are identified as one of the
principle uses of the public lands. As a result, the BLM has
issued thousands of miles of rights-of-way for electricity
transmission and distribution. Currently, the BLM administers
almost 16,000 authorizations for such rights-of-way. This
infrastructure is a significant component of our nation's
interstate commerce providing power to communities and jobs for
thousands of Americans.
In administering electrical rights-of-way, the BLM works to
meet its obligations for the management and protection of
natural and cultural resources on the public lands while
minimizing wildfire risk and ensuring the reliability of the
Energy production and transmission are important sources of
revenue and job growth in rural America, and capitalizing on
opportunities to reduce permitting times is a major focus of
this Administration. As directed by Secretary Zinke in
Secretarial Order 3354, the BLM is committed to improving and
streamlining its permitting processes, including for rights-of-
Under existing law the BLM coordinates closely with
thousands of utility organizations and other federal agencies
in its administration of electrical rights-of-way. This
coordination, along with early and ongoing communication and
planning, is essential for the vegetation management necessary
to prevent infrastructure damage, power outages and wildfires.
The BLM has undertaken steps to provide greater
predictability and clarity for the utilities it works with and
we believe that thorough vegetation management plans provide
the best opportunity to streamline the approval process, but
BLM acknowledges that there may be aspects of the approval
process that can be streamlined further and we welcome efforts
to work with the Committee to make these critical improvements.
Given the volatile fire season impacting the West, working
closely with our partners in industry to undertake appropriate
vegetation management in electrical rights-of-way is more
important than ever before. The reduction of fire risk is a
high priority for the Secretary, as outlined in the recent
directive on wildland fire. All of the Department's bureaus,
including the BLM, have been tasked with adopting more
aggressive practices to combat the spread of catastrophic
wildfires through robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression
The legislation being considered at this hearing would
expand the BLM's toolbox to help reduce the threat of
catastrophic wildfires like those we are currently
experiencing. The legislation under consideration today shares
common goals and language for enhancing electric reliability,
promoting public safety and avoiding fire hazards in electrical
transmission rights-of-way. To accomplish these goals both
pieces of legislation would amend FLPMA by adding new
provisions regarding vegetation management, facility inspection
and operation and maintenance activities.
The BLM supports the bill's goals of increasing
coordination and efficiency regarding vegetation management and
reducing wildfire risk. As such, we support both bills and
would like to work with the sponsors on a few technical
Thank you again for the opportunity to present this
testimony. We look forward to working with Congress on the
efficient protection of public safety and the reliability of
infrastructure on the public lands.
I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Ruhs follows:]
[GRAPHIC(S) NOT AVAILABLE IN TIFF FORMAT]
The Chairman. Thank you, Mr. Ruhs.
Mr. Hayden, welcome.
STATEMENT OF MARK C. HAYDEN, GENERAL MANAGER, MISSOULA ELECTRIC
Mr. Hayden. Good morning, Chairman Murkowski, Ranking
Member Cantwell and members of the Committee, and thank you to
the Senator from Montana for his earlier introduction.
My name is Mark Hayden, and I'm the General Manager of
Missoula Electric Cooperative (MEC) in Missoula, Montana.
MEC is a consumer-owned electric utility serving the
distribution needs of approximately 15,000 meters in Western
Montana and Eastern Idaho. We have 41 employees and
approximately 2,000 miles of distribution line, nearly 300
miles of which cross federal land. MEC is a proud member of the
National Rural Electric Co-ops Association, the Montana
Electric Co-ops Association and the Northwest Public Power
Montana's 2017 wildfire season has taken a devastating toll
on our forests, our residents and our economy. More than a
million acres have burned, lives and homes have been lost and
hundreds of residents have been evacuated due to the threat of
All of this highlights the importance of this hearing today
because, while Montana's fires were all lightning-sparked, they
serve as a vivid reminder of what could occur as a result of
long delays in permit approvals and inconsistent application of
policies by federal land managers. These actions place
unnecessary risk on my cooperative and the entire public power
community. In fact, the risk of fires as a result of hazardous
trees is all too real across the West.
I know of one member-owned electric co-op in New Mexico
that was held responsible for firefighting costs for a massive
152,000-acre fire caused by just one Aspen tree that fell on
the power line in the co-op's Forest Service rights-of-way. The
Forest Service sent the co-op a bill totaling more than $38.2
million; however, the co-op has only $20 million of liability
Another example of delays and inconsistencies is ongoing at
Benton Rural Electric Association (BREA) in Washington State.
BREA has waited 15 months to renew their special use permit for
lines that have been in place for more than 70 years. Forest
Service officials have now proposed nothing short of a full-
blown environmental assessment which could cost the Association
more than $100,000. In addition, BREA staff has historically
been required to provide a list of danger trees for Forest
Service inspection prior to their removal. Authorization can
take three to six months, leaving an unnecessary risk of
wildfire ignition while they wait.
Madam Chairman, I would request that two documents, one
related to the New Mexico fire and the second, the Benton REA
challenges, be placed into the hearing record.
The Chairman. Without objection.
[The information referred to follows:]
[GRAPHIC(S) NOT AVAILABLE IN TIFF FORMAT]
Mr. Hayden. My co-op, like so many parts of the West, has
been adversely affected by the mountain pine beetle
infestation. To maintain reliable service, especially to remote
emergency equipment, MEC at one point had to cut, retrieve and
deck, at considerable expense, a number of dead trees. MEC has
never marketed a single log cut on Forest Service land nor
would profiting from cutting trees ever be a motivating factor.
Given our beetle kill situation, it was decided in December
2013 to bury six miles of overhead line, and we were told by
the Forest Service Office to expect approval in six months. As
that deadline passed we made an appeal for help from then
Congressman Daines, who brought our situation to the attention
of House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Water,
Power and Oceans for later that year.
In May 2015 I was invited to provide testimony before that
same Subcommittee regarding our project delay. In preparation,
I placed one final call to the local district ranger to express
my frustration and he indicated that if I wanted to see things
change I should take my issue up with Congress, at which point
I told him I intended to do so the following week. Two days
later on a Saturday afternoon, MEC received an unofficial
notice via email to proceed with our project. We waited nearly
18 months for approval of a project that qualified for
categorical exclusion. I can only imagine the number of months
or years project approval would have taken had more in-depth
We commend the House for recently passing H.R. 1873 that
received strong, bipartisan support and this Committee for
proposing meaningful reforms through language changes in the
current energy bill.
I also want to recognize the efforts of Senator Daines for
his continued strong involvement in this issue for the benefit
of consumer-owned utilities across the nation. While the
language may vary, some critical elements in the passage of any
final legislation should include: optionality regarding
vegetation management plans; firm deadlines on the agencies to
ensure timely turnaround; categorical exclusion provisions must
be included; liability relief should be granted for agency's
failure to respond in a timely manner to utility request for
authorization; and training provisions should encourage
Some have expressed concerns that legislative remedies,
such as timelines, liability relief, are only setting our
forests, our federal agencies, up for failure. While I'm not
here today to pass judgment on current forest management
practices, I would argue that current fuels reduction efforts,
initial response plans that allow small fires to grow and long
delays for agency approvals is only setting electric suppliers
up for failure as well with devastating consequences to the
forest and the utility.
Thank you again for the honor of testifying before this
Committee, and I will be pleased to answer any questions.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Hayden follows:]
[GRAPHIC(S) NOT AVAILABLE IN TIFF FORMAT]
The Chairman. Thank you, Mr. Hayden.
STATEMENT OF SCOTT MILLER, SENIOR REGIONAL DIRECTOR, SOUTHWEST
REGION, THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
Mr. Miller. Thank you, Chairman Murkowski, Ranking Member
Cantwell and members of the Committee for the opportunity to
At the outset, I wanted to thank you for your comments
earlier and Senator Heinrich about Senator Domenici. He was the
Chairman for most of the time I worked for this Committee, and
I wanted to express my condolences to his staff.
The Wilderness Society supports efforts to develop needed
energy resources, where and when appropriate and when conducted
in a responsible manner, especially the renewable wind, solar
and geothermal resources found on our public lands.
As an aside I wanted to thank Senator Heinrich for his
leadership with Senator Heller on the Public Lands Renewable
Energy Development Act which is pending in this Committee.
Since this Committee's important work in the Energy Policy
Act of 2005, utility vegetation management planning and
practices have improved substantially. At the same time, the
importance of strong utility vegetation management practices
continues to grow as climate change is causing longer wildfire
seasons; longer growing seasons; larger and more severe
wildfires; changing plant species distributions; increased
insect and disease activity; and more intense, more frequent
and more longer-lasting drought, wetness, and weather events.
These impacts and the related dynamics on utility vegetation
management underscore the need for proactive, well-planned and
adaptable utility vegetation management programs to ensure
electric reliability and reduce wildfire risk. To do so, it's
necessary for the utilities and federal land managers to work
cooperatively to ensure their stewardship obligations are met.
The Wilderness Society opposes H.R. 1873 because it would
frustrate rather than facilitate sound utility vegetation
management, and it would undermine public land stewardship and
the public interest. For example, as a result of its
inconsistent, broad and contradictory provisions regarding the
application of state and local requirements, H.R. 1873 could
leave federal land managers and utilities in the untenable
position of having to comply with conflicting, inapplicable or
inadequate state and local requirements for fire safety and
electric system reliability. H.R. 1873 provisions on liability
could leave the agencies and ultimately the taxpayers to cover
the damages caused by the utility's own negligence or even
gross negligence. And the bill dramatically compounds its many
problems by applying its provisions to all lands under the
jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior, including our
National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges and even trust and
restricted-fee lands of Native American tribes and individuals.
Those are just a few of the concerns summarized in our
written testimony. The BLM and the Forest Service raises still
others in their testimony given during a hearing in the House.
Section 2310 of S. 1460, on the other hand, takes a much
more thoughtful approach that corrects or avoids many of the
flaws of H.R. 1873. We would like to offer some suggestions to
clarify and improve Section 2310. Section 2310 authorizes
utilities to carry out certain activities if the agencies fail
to respond to their requests in a timely manner. We agree that
it's reasonable that the utilities ought to be able to expect
timely responses from the federal land managers; however, we're
concerned that the provision could have unintended consequences
such as counterproductively resulting in planned schedules that
result in unnecessary delays for routine approvals. Instead, we
recommend that the bill impose a mandatory duty on the
Secretaries to respond in accordance with the approved
schedules. Consistent with points made in Mr. Rable's testimony
and the Forest Service's testimony in the House, we recommend
that the bill use hazard trees as a reference to clarify the
scope of Section 2310's provisions relating to vegetation
management adjacent to utility rights-of-way. And finally,
clarifying that the authority of the Secretary and the
utilities to make modifications of approved plans or withdraw
approval, if necessary, would help to ensure adaptive
management and that both parties retain the ability to
effectively and efficiently meet their obligations.
Again, thank you for your good work on Section 2310 and the
opportunity to testify on it. We'd welcome an opportunity to
work with Committee staff on these and a few other suggestions,
if the legislation moves forward.
I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Miller follows:]
[GRAPHIC(S) NOT AVAILABLE IN TIFF FORMAT]
The Chairman. Thank you, Mr. Miller, I appreciate it.
STATEMENT OF ANDREW RABLE, MANAGER OF FORESTRY AND SPECIAL
PROGRAMS, ARIZONA PUBLIC SERVICE COMPANY, ON BEHALF OF EDISON
Mr. Rable. Chairman Murkowski, Ranking Member Cantwell and
members of the Committee, my name is Andrew Rable, Manager of
Forestry and Special Programs for Arizona Public Service (APS).
I appreciate the opportunity to testify before you today on the
importance of vegetation management to ensure the safety and
reliability of energy infrastructure. APS is Arizona's largest
and longest serving electric company and serves more than one
million customers in 11 of the state's 15 counties. APS
administers some 6,000 miles of transmission and 11,000 miles
of distribution lines throughout Arizona, including federal
lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land
Management, and National Park Service. I am also testifying on
behalf of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the Association
that represents all U.S. investor-owned electric companies.
EEI's members provide electricity for about 220 million
Americans and operate in all 50 states and the District of
Managing vegetation on electric transmission and
distribution rights-of-way is a key part of electric company
efforts to protect the security and reliability of the energy
grid. Failure to properly manage vegetation can cause
wildfires, lead to cascading power outages and jeopardize the
physical integrity of energy infrastructure. For example, the
August 2003 Northeast blackout was initially triggered by a
contact between a power line and a tree. In response, Congress
passed legislation in 2005 that established our current regime
of mandatory and enforceable reliability standards, including
standards for vegetation management.
To help reduce these risks, the electric companies need
timely access to public and private lands on which power line
rights-of-way are located to perform necessary vegetation
management on adjacent to the rights-of-way. Particular
challenges arise when the rights-of-way cross federal lands,
largely due to significant delays companies face in getting
multiple approvals from different federal agencies to access
those rights-of-way or to perform integrated vegetation
These inconsistencies put utility companies in a tough
position. Increased wildfire risk has elevated the need for
companies to comprehensively address vegetation management.
Courts have found companies liable for wildfire damages
involving power line contact with vegetation despite their
extensive, proactive vegetation management efforts offered in
high hazard conditions. At the same time, companies are subject
to significant fines or violations of NERC, FERC reliability
We continue to seek ways to improve the process for
accessing federal lands to remove forest debris, decrease fuel
load and obtain authorizations to perform routine vegetation
management. For example, in 2016 EEI signed a memorandum of
understanding (MOU) with federal agencies and other
stakeholders that will foster better cooperation and
coordination between companies and federal agencies, especially
the Forest Service, to manage vegetation within and immediately
adjacent to existing rights-of-way. While the MOU and other
tools are positive steps, more needs to be done to ensure that
federal agencies can and will act in a timely manner. That is
why we support federal legislation in this area.
The House has already passed H.R. 1873, the bipartisan
Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act, and we
appreciate that Chairman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell
included a vegetation management provision when they
reintroduced their Energy and Natural Resources Act this year
as Section 1460. Both the House and Senate bills would provide
a more streamlined and consistent process for vegetation
management approvals. The bills are similar in many respects
with each containing several noteworthy, beneficial features
outlined in more detail in my written statement.
Both bills would significantly increase efficiencies and
the federal review process, allow companies to voluntarily
develop and file vegetation management plans to expedite
necessary activities, and authorize categorical exclusions
under NEPAs for existing rights-of-way. The bills include
different but potentially complimentary approaches to providing
limited liability protections to help reduce disincentives for
companies that want to develop vegetation management plans or
need to take proactive measures to address threats to
reliability or unacceptable wildfire risk.
In conclusion, vegetation management is an important
priority for EEI and its member companies to ensure the safety
and reliability of the energy grid. We will continue to work
with federal land management agencies to achieve effective, on-
the-ground implementation of the MOU. We will also work with
Congress to pass legislation to establish a better framework to
promote federal land management consistency, accountability and
timely decision-making, while respecting the mission of the
federal management agencies to appropriately manage lands
within their respective jurisdictions.
Thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to testify,
and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Rable follows:]
[GRAPHIC(S) NOT AVAILABLE IN TIFF FORMAT]
The Chairman. Thank you, Mr. Rable, and thank you all for
your comments this morning. I appreciate that each of you has
indicated a willingness to work with us on these issues as we
advance them and recognize the significance of it.
I would like to ask a question, and I will throw it out to
the entire panel here. It has been mentioned--the strict
liability standard that FLPMA imposes on owners and operators
of power lines that are located on federal lands. I have also
mentioned the significant penalties for violating the state and
federal or local requirements to clear the lines. I think it
gets people's attention when you say it could be up to $1
million per day, per violation. And then you have your
consumers effectively paying twice; once under strict liability
and again for violating the ERO vegetation management standard.
This can come about even if the utility has been blocked from
taking preventative steps due to, oftentimes, federal land
management agency inaction.
The question to each of you is whether or not strict
liability is the appropriate standard for those utilities that
are performing the vegetation management work, and do you agree
that should be the case even where those damages, potential
damages, might be preventable where you might have a federal
agency's inaction in allowing a utility to go on to the federal
land, to an existing right-of-way, to perform the necessary
work to remove, whether it is a dead or dying tree, but in
other words, prevent that utility from clearing the line? If we
can speak to the standard that is out there right now under
FLPMA and whether you think that is the appropriate standard
and whether that holds if the damages could have been
I will start with you, Mr. Casamassa.
Mr. Casamassa. Yeah, thank you, Madam Chair.
Certainly, we are willing to and are ready to work with the
Committee on coming up with, perhaps, a more reasonable
approach in certain situations for the liability and a clearer
definition of what that would mean both within and outside of
So I think that there are opportunities for us to look at
that and then be able to make some modifications to it as well.
The Chairman. Let me ask you then whether you think it
should be Congress or the federal agency, in this case, BLM,
determining the appropriate standard?
Mr. Casamassa. Well, I think that it's, again, it's a
combination of the two. I think that certainly there are roles
for both to provide some frame for it as it relates to what we
can do administratively and then potentially to look at some
adjustments being made through legislation.
The Chairman. Mr. Ruhs?
Mr. Ruhs. Chairman Murkowski, as my colleague from the
Forest Service mentioned, we look forward to working with the
Committee on these kinds of issues. We strongly support these
bills and I believe that, in regards to liability, there are
opportunities for us to work together and find solutions.
The Chairman. The rest of the panel? Mr. Hayden?
Mr. Hayden. Well Chairman Murkowski, I absolutely agree
that there should be liability relief for utilities if there
are delays in the approval of a vegetation management plan. I
also believe there should be liability relief if we are not
allowed to work consistently with the plan or if we are not
allowed to cut hazard trees in accordance with the plan.
But I would take that one step further. If we are acting in
accordance with the plan, not negligent in any way, I would say
that strict liability provisions may be--there should be
consideration given to removing that strict liability from us
if we are acting in accordance with the plan because we can't
be out there 24/7 determining when a new hazard tree crops up.
The Chairman. But I----
Mr. Hayden. And to your final question, I would just say
that Congress should make that determination.
The Chairman. I appreciate that.
Mr. Miller. Thank you, Senator.
As a general rule, I think that strict liability is an
appropriate standard for right-of-way holders on public lands;
but in the context of utility electricity lines, I think it's
important to recognize the public service that they provide,
the important public service. And I don't think it's fair for
Congress to impose standards that they must meet, and then
prevent them from meeting them, and then impose strict
liability for not meeting them.
So, in that case, I would just reiterate that I think the
House bill's provisions are very troubling because they're
overbroad and the Senate bill takes a much more thoughtful
approach to the strict liability issue.
The Chairman. I appreciate that.
Mr. Rable. Yeah so, in agreement with Mr. Hayden and Mr.
Miller, I would suggest that it would be a Congressional
decision with input from both federal agencies and utilities.
And as long as the provisions are being met as far as the
vegetation management plan and we're following our plan, then
liability would indeed be considered and waived.
The Chairman. Very good, thank you. Thank you each for
Senator Cortez Masto.
Senator Cortez Masto. Thank you.
I appreciate the question, Madam Chair, because that was
the question that I had. And I agree with you, I think this is
an area where I am hoping the federal agencies are willing to
work to address the issue of strict liability, because I do not
see how we can mandate a standard of strict liability when the
utilities are prevented from being able to follow their
management plan or they are blocked from doing so.
I am hoping that the federal agencies are willing to work
through this issue and help us identify and figure out how we
can maneuver through this issue of liability, because I think
there has to be some liability, obviously. Somebody has to be
held accountable to make sure that we are preventing any type
of forest fires or that we are addressing and doing the cleanup
that is necessary. But I also understand and have dealt with
some of the federal agencies locally in the State of Nevada,
and there is a frustration level.
And I appreciate, Mr. Hayden, your comments, because I have
heard that from some of our similar utilities and agencies
about asking for approval and not getting it and the delay,
delay, delay that happens. So I am hoping there is more
conversation regarding this issue, and that we can figure this
out. I appreciate that.
One of the other areas, though, that there has been
discussion is categorical exclusions for NEPA. I am hoping, Mr.
Hayden, if you would be willing, and Mr. Rable, to talk a
little bit more about that--what do you identify as categorical
exclusions that you are seeking?
Mr. Hayden. Well, to address that question I would go back
to--in my written testimony I provide an example of a six-mile
plow, burying six miles of overhead line and converting it to
underground. You know, that's a commonsense example of how we
can get out of the forest into road right-of-way, but that's
very expensive and we can't do that in every case.
The Forest Service absolutely needs a categorical exclusion
to process these requests for vegetation management or burying
a power line because, number one, I don't think the resources
that they would need to go through full-blown assessments every
time we submit one are possible.
And to the fact that a categorical exclusion isn't just
signing a piece of paper and sending that off. With our
categorical exclusion, we were also billed $8,800 and 23 days
was spent on that; 2.3 days for ten people, on average, at a
cost of $8,800, but it took 18 months to get that. So if we
didn't have categorical exclusion, just think of the
consequences of that.
Senator Cortez Masto. Thank you.
And Mr. Rable and Mr. Miller as well, I'd be curious to
hear your thoughts on it.
Mr. Rable. Yeah, so just to reiterate that the categorical
exclusion would not limit or hold the utilities unaccountable
for the work that we're planning to do. What we're trying to do
with the categorical exclusions is create significant
efficiencies, create consistencies and additional flexibilities
within the agencies and how they react to the work plans that
we have identified annually.
Mr. Miller. Thank you, Senator.
I would just comment that, to make clear, that there are a
number of categorical exclusions that the agencies already have
and use for routine vegetation management, and I think the
benefit of the Senate bill would be that it encourages long-
term planning. And most of these activities can and should be
planned months and years ahead and that could facilitate
appropriate environmental review.
Our main concern, again, is that the House bill would give
a blanket categorical exclusion to everything and that's
unnecessary and, I think, could lead to significant adverse
effects on the environment.
Senator Cortez Masto. Thank you. Thank you, gentlemen. And
thank you, Madam Chair, for this conversation. I really
The Chairman. Thank you.
Senator Heinrich. Thank you, Madam Chair.
Mr. Ruhs, I know we are here to discuss safe maintenance of
our rights-of-way for electric lines today. I think it is an
incredibly important issue. I want to especially thank the
Chair and the Ranking Member for the work that they have put
into the existing language in the Energy bill. I think we are
making good progress on this.
However, with yesterday's news about the Secretary's
recommendations to the President regarding national monuments,
including two BLM monuments in New Mexico, I have to take the
opportunity to raise a couple of questions with you.
I was incredibly concerned in reading the report summary on
the two monuments in New Mexico. I note that there were more
than a few simple, factual errors included. For example, there
is a claim that roads have been closed in Rio Grande del Norte
National Monument. I confirmed with BLM staff that that is not
accurate. And there is a claim that ranchers have stopped
ranching there because of those non-existing road closures.
Also not true.
The report says that the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks
National Monument is on or abuts the U.S.-Mexico border. That
is also not true, because on the recommendation of the U.S.
Customs and Border Patrol, the boundary of the monument was
actually established five miles north of the international
border, actually north of New Mexico State Highway Nine.
Finally, it says that both proclamations need to be amended to
protect hunting and fishing rights when nothing could be
further from the truth. I have had the opportunity, in fact, to
hunt everything from Mearns' quail to javelina in the Organ
Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. In addition,
Petersen's Hunting magazine, just last month, listed that
monument as one of the top ten public land destination hunts in
the nation for quail.
As for the Rio Grande del Norte, I confirmed this morning
with the largest membership sportsman's organization in New
Mexico that hunting and fishing access have actually improved
post-monument designation and that the monument even hosts a
bighorn sheep hunt that did not exist before the monument
These are some pretty basic facts to get wrong.
So I have to ask you, were the local BLM staff, who
actually manage these two monuments on the ground on a daily
basis, consulted by the Secretary's office regarding the facts
on the ground in these monuments that they manage as part of
that Secretarial process?
Mr. Ruhs. Senator, I can assure you that I, myself, and the
Bureau of Land Management were not part of the writing of the
reports. We did answer questions and provide data as necessary.
I haven't seen the report so I can't answer the questions up
front, but I would be willing to take those questions and
concerns back with me to the Department and ask.
Senator Heinrich. I would appreciate that.
So you were actually not asked to fact check that document
before it was shared with the White House?
Mr. Ruhs. Correct, Senator. We provided information as
requested and again, that's the limit of our----
Senator Heinrich. The Secretary's office might ask you a
specific question, but you were not given an opportunity to
review that document for accuracy?
Mr. Ruhs. Correct.
Senator Heinrich. Okay.
So there is no way for you to know the sources of
inaccurate facts in that report?
Mr. Ruhs. Correct, sir.
Senator Heinrich. Okay.
Do you have any idea if there is going to be a process to
correct factual errors in that report and potentially change
recommendations based on inaccurate information?
Mr. Ruhs. Again, Senator, I am not involved with the
development of the report, but my understanding, I guess, would
be that, you know, our Secretary is pretty thorough on things
and so I'm sure that if we've identified that there are
inconsistencies and I take that information back, why, I'm sure
that there would be an opportunity to fix those.
Senator Heinrich. I look forward to putting together a fact
sheet that is more consistent with the conditions on the
ground. I will be happy to share that with you so that you can
take it back to the Secretary.
I have to say that my constituents are incredibly upset by
the fact that the future of their monuments could be determined
by people sitting in offices in Washington, DC, who have not
been out on the ground in those places, and at this point,
seemingly, did not get their basic facts right. So I look
forward to working with you. I look forward to working with the
Secretary. And I certainly hope that before the President acts
on any of these recommendations, the Secretary makes sure that
he can get his facts straight.
The Chairman. Thank you, Senator Heinrich.
Senator Daines. Thank you, Madam Chair.
I was going to ask about liability relief, but it sounds
like that was covered. And all witnesses, especially the
agencies, want to find a solution through legislation. So it is
great to be of consensus here.
I was also going to talk about categorical exclusions. It
sounds like Mr. Hayden has also spoken to the importance of
So given that those items have been covered very well prior
to my questions, I am going to continue to move down this path
of CE authority, though in a little more depth.
Mr. Casamassa, I have a question for you. Our witnesses
have attested to the importance of the use of categorical
exclusions for environmental review. Could you speak to the
value of a CE, and is public input incorporated in a review
under a CE?
Mr. Casamassa. Yeah, Senator.
Certainly, based on the routine and minor nature of some
actions associated with the work that is being proposed by
utility providers, there's an opportunity to potentially expand
what kind of work they can do and work within the frame of the
National Environmental Policy Act. So certainly a categorical
exclusion that goes beyond the scope of what we have right now
would be advantageous for the agency.
Senator Daines. Yes, and I think it is an important point
that a categorical exclusion does not mean that public input is
Mr. Casamassa. Well certainly there is some level of
notification and input that would be provided from communities
of interest and constituents who are interested in that kind of
Senator Daines. Yes.
Mr. Casamassa. I do want to point out though, that one of
the things would be is that this would not be a categorical
exclusion where we would exclude this from analysis. It's just
a category within the analysis process that we do.
Senator Daines. Alright. Thank you.
Mr. Rable, could you shed some light on the penalties
utilities face to keep the grid reliable and how the lack of
vegetation treatment poses a significant financial risk that
you may ultimately pass on to ratepayers?
Mr. Rable. Yeah.
So to build on what Chairman Murkowski mentioned earlier,
the utilities are indeed based on FAC-003-4, subject to
penalties up to and including $1 million per day, per
violation. That, of course, is dependent on a couple of
factors: the violation severity levels and the violation risk
factors. So depending on the magnitude of the severity and the
risk that the utility has assumed, those fines could be up to
and including $1 million per day.
Senator Daines. Thank you.
That is big money, real money, particularly thinking about
the co-ops and so forth out in Montana that, you know, a lot of
Montanans find out there is a longer month than there is a
paycheck, and that is a very important point.
I made this point earlier when I was introducing Mr.
Hayden, but let me just conclude by saying when I was here that
first week of August, in fact, right here at this dais--on that
particular day, Montana had 30 of the top 30 fires in the
nation burning in our state. I had just gotten off the phone
with one of our county commissioners from Southwest Montana
where there is a very large BPA transmission line running near
one of the fires, and the carbon that is emitted from the fire
and the particulate in the air was such that it presented a
risk to the firefighters on the ground from arcing from the
high voltage line to the ground. At that point we could not
even think about vegetation management along these power lines.
We could not even get firefighters near the power lines to even
fight the fire.
I think it highlights the importance that we need
preventive measures and good, responsible, sound timber
management practices here to ensure that we can keep the forest
healthy and to protect these important assets that when the
fire burns, it is often too late. That is why, I think, what we
have here with this bill is good, commonsense forest
Thank you for your thoughtful testimony today from all the
The Chairman. Thank you, Senator Daines, and thank you for
your leadership on the forestry reform issues.
You know, you never want to have tragedy bring about the
impetus to advance good policy and good legislation, but
certainly the loss of property, the tragic loss of life that
you have seen in your state alone this summer, has been
something that reminds us all--there is responsibility that we
can put forth from a policy perspective, that we might not be
able to stop forest fires altogether, but hopefully working
with smart initiatives, we can reduce some of that risk.
You have proposed doing so much of that with your
initiative, and we really look forward to working with you to
Senator Daines. Thank you, Chair Murkowski.
The Chairman. Senator Barrasso.
Senator Barrasso. Well, thank you very much, Madam
Chairman, and thank you for your continued leadership on this
very timely matter. I agree exactly with what you said and the
role of this Committee working to advance good policy and hate
to see tragedy at play that brings about these sorts of
The EPW will be holding a hearing on some of the things
that Senator Daines is proposing with his legislation next
week, and I look forward to continuing to work with you closely
on this. But every year this Committee grapples with forest
management and preventing catastrophic fires like those that we
have seen in Montana this year.
While we are not necessarily here today to discuss the
larger issue of general forest management, I think it is worth
noting that if federal forests were in better health, we may
not be facing such an urgent need to actively, so actively,
protect our electric grid. To be clear, this is not just a
rural issue. One downed tree, one interrupted line, one fire
could cause dramatic and drastic sweeping effects across wide
areas of the country.
Mr. Ruhs, on September 12th Secretary Zinke issued a
department-wide memorandum on wildland fire instructing your
agency to ``use the full range of existing authorities'' and
``use your existing policies more aggressively to combat the
ever-growing threat of catastrophic wildfire.'' In practical
terms, what does this mean for how the BLM will engage more
with partners, like electric co-ops, to manage forested lands
outside of rights-of-way?
Mr. Ruhs. Senator, thank you for the question.
The BLM and our other federal partners work pretty hand-in-
hand with the industry folks since the development of the
Edison MOU in 2016. I think we've seen some improvements in our
abilities to develop vegetative management plans and work
together to support those. And I think that's one of the
primary things that's going to carry us forward as we work
together on those things.
I believe that the items that are in these bills, both of
them, provide us with additional tools that will help us permit
and process things faster.
So I think all those things help us to be more responsive
and support our customer base better.
Senator Barrasso. Mr. Casamassa, while Secretary Zinke's
most recent memo does not apply to Forest Service staff, he, as
well as Agriculture Secretary Purdue, did issue an earlier memo
in June outlining the need to work more collaboratively on
managing forests and preventing catastrophic wildfire.
In Wyoming, rural utilities are concerned that they are
unable to adequately manage for risks to the power lines
because the agency has not removed potentially hazardous trees
outside of the right-of-way. If you have a tree outside of the
right-of-way that is taller than the distance from the right-
of-way boundary to the power line, obviously there is a risk to
that power line.
So falling trees do pose a real risk because we have
significant winds in Wyoming to say nothing of the risk posed
by fast, hot, moving fires. Your agency has cited issues with
disposal of these trees as a barrier to helping mitigate the
In your testimony you mentioned that some provisions in
this language are duplicative, but it seems there is a need to
reinforce some of the Forest Service's tools. So in situations
where utilities are under threat by conditions outside of the
right-of-way, does the Forest Service have the tools it needs
to address those conditions itself or to allow the utility to
act in a timely manner?
Mr. Casamassa. Yeah, thank you, Senator.
We do have some tools available to us, certainly not within
the context of what one would consider something categorically
I know, based on the work that has been done in parts of
Wyoming, that a large area associated with the Medicine Bow and
the Routt National Forests within Colorado and other forests in
Colorado, we have taken a larger look at that landscape and
provided for an opportunity for co-ops and large-scale utility
providers to clear inside the right-of-way and then adjacent to
the right-of-way, those trees that have been deemed hazards.
So there are some tools that are available and certainly
there could be, and some additional tools that would be made
available to the agency.
Senator Barrasso. Thank you.
Finally for Mr. Rable and Mr. Hayden. The liability
utilities face caused by poor vegetation management outside of
the rights-of-way truly can be astounding. The way communities
experience a blackout or other interruption in electric
service, the impacts are swift. They are apparent. Hospitals,
schools, grocery stores and homes lose power; loss of power in
this scale can be, obviously, disruptive but also dangerous.
Senator Daines asked about the real cost of outages in
terms of the fines, but what impact does this have for your
ratepayers, you know, on a different scale?
Mr. Hayden. Well, in our community, fire was very nearby
this year. And I'll tell you one dramatic impact is the
firefighters, the property owners that were trying to protect
their own homes, if we have to shut off power or power is
interrupted, they can't fight fires with the water they need in
certain cases. So that would be a direct impact.
But it's the cost of--we can't cover enough, we can't have
enough insurance to cover some of these bills that have been
sent out. So----
Senator Barrasso. Mr. Rable?
Mr. Rable. Yeah, thank you for the question.
To build on what Senator Daines mentioned earlier in the
tracking of particulates and fires that are in and around our
utility corridors, we have a number of examples at Arizona
Public Service where we have de-energized lines in order to
protect firefighter wildland safety and the protection of our
customers as well. So we have de-energized lines in order for
them to get access to our corridor.
Senator Barrasso. Thank you.
Thank you, Madam Chairman.
The Chairman. Thank you, Senator Barrasso.
There has been a fair amount of discussion about the
categorical exclusions and to follow on that, this is directed
to both Mr. Casamassa and Mr. Ruhs. From your perspective, are
there some types of vegetation management activities that are
routine enough, we just see enough of them, that they could be
categorically excluded under NEPA? I guess that is the first
part of the question, and if you can identify what those might
be, why haven't the agencies acted to specifically exclude them
Mr. Casamassa. Madam Chair, certainly there are some, I'd
say, vegetative community types that we think----
The Chairman. What does that mean, ``vegetative
Mr. Casamassa. Well, it's just a classification of the type
of trees or vegetation----
The Chairman. Okay.
Mr. Casamassa. ----that are at a particular location.
The Chairman. Okay.
Mr. Casamassa. So I think that there are opportunities to
ensure that that is the kind of activity that could be--
clearing that vegetative community type could be an activity
that should be provided to the utility companies. And
certainly, that's a part of it.
The Chairman. So if it should be and it could be, why
Mr. Casamassa. And we have, up to this point, been working
within the context of the categories that we have done
administratively and also looking at the full suite of CEs that
are available to us through other pieces of legislation. But
recognizing this is, I think, one of the areas that, given the
large scale of insect outbreaks that have been occurring,
particularly in the interior West, and the need for active
management adjacent to or within the rights-of-way, there's an
opportunity here to go beyond what we have presently,
administratively, or what has been provided through legislation
in terms of categorical exclusions.
The Chairman. It sounds like you are saying that you do
have--you can clearly identify those types of activities that
would be routine enough.
Mr. Casamassa. Yeah.
The Chairman. You just need to do it.
What about you, Mr. Ruhs, within BLM?
Mr. Ruhs. Madam Chairwoman, I guess that I would say the
same, kind of, holds for BLM.
We have, I think we've been focused primarily on developing
vegetative management plans and working together along those
lines and trying to streamline the processes that way.
And we do have some tools in the toolbox, categorical
exclusions, but I don't think they get specific enough for some
of the areas that we have.
So I think working together we can find those things if we
continue to work with industry as well as with the Committee. I
think we can refine what our needs are.
The Chairman. Well, let me ask the question because there
has been some discussion brought up, primarily from Mr. Hayden
and Mr. Rable, about inconsistent practices or procedures that
lead to delays and planning difficulties. I guess the
question--it certainly seems to me that from the utility side
they are saying that these delays are real. We don't think many
of them are reasonable. How do you respond to that? You say you
are trying to work with everybody, but do you think that more
needs to be done to ensure, not only streamlining, but a
greater consistency to allow for better planning to best reduce
Mr. Casamassa. Well, Madam Chair, I agree.
I think that there has to be a bit of--there has to be more
consistency in our approach to the way that we manage the areas
within and outside of the rights-of-way. That certainly is
something that we are working on.
I think it has to do not only with some of the clarity
around some of the policy and procedures, but then also the
recognition by the agency that a stance around leadership when
it comes to these kinds of issues is really important that we
recognize the value of ensuring that we're stewarding all of
the lands for all of the uses in and outside of these rights-
of-way. We're looking for, we want to look for opportunities
for us to work better across this landscape.
The Chairman. Let me ask about that because you are saying
all the right things. I don't think anyone would disagree with
you but I think what you hear is the frustration saying, well
the agency is saying the right thing, yet we are not seeing
that translate. We are still continuing to see the delay; we
are still continuing to see a conflict. Is there anything going
on administratively right now or are you waiting for Congress
to, kind of, sort things out and basically to tell you to do
the right thing?
Mr. Casamassa. Well, certainly we are taking action in some
areas as it relates to some routine removal of vegetation
inside the rights-of-way. And so, that is, you know, there is
some active management actually going on right now across the
landscape. Is it consistent across every single district office
or forest in the agency? I would say, no, and they're working
toward that. But there is a considerable amount of work that's
being done in cooperation with the utility companies.
The Chairman. Let me ask if Mr. Rable or Mr. Hayden agree?
Are you seeing a change in relationship, a willingness to work
with our land management, the local land managers, working with
the federal land managers, or is it still the same old, same
Mr. Rable. It continues to be fairly inconsistent. So the
answer to your question is sometimes yes and sometimes no. And
oftentimes that's dependent on change in staff, so you may have
staffing levels that at certain times are in agreement with
routine vegetation management and what your prescription is
that's been long established on existing corridors; and then
with turnover in staff, they may have a difference of opinion
about your approach.
The Chairman. Mr. Hayden, would you agree?
Mr. Hayden. I would completely agree and I would lean back
to the Benton Rural Electric example that just hit my desk a
couple days ago, that talks about their inconsistency.
I'd like to add that, you know, one of the greatest
strengths of working with the Forest Service for us is this
decentralized decision-making. Local people that are in our
communities, they understand our struggles, are making
decisions; but one of the greatest weaknesses is that same
decentralized decision-making because they may have different
interpretations of the rules. They may be afraid to make
decisions at that local level, but we have this struggle where
it's really great to be able to work locally with these people,
and we struggle with that. So I would say that the
inconsistency is still there.
The Chairman. Well, I think this is important for our
agency folks, Mr. Casamassa and Mr. Ruhs, to hear and
understand that we have a ways to go here to gain these
efficiencies that we are all hoping for.
Senator Cantwell. Thank you, Madam Chair. Again, I
apologize for stepping out. We have had a couple of other
hearings this morning, as you well know, and are balancing
I wanted to go back to the BLM focus because last Congress
BLM testified that it was concerned about the then-House
legislation that was sponsored by then-Congressman Zinke, now
Secretary Zinke. And BLM noticed that waiving the liability
might conflict with the standard terms and conditions of the
rights-of-way grants. The House bill still has these same
In your time at BLM, Mr. Ruhs, have you ever been in a
situation where non-emergency issues had to wait longer than
three days while you were dealing with a real emergency like a
Mr. Ruhs. Ranking Member Cantwell, I would say that in my
time with the agency, I have seen times when we haven't been as
efficient with our processes as we should be. I believe
oftentimes we have competing laws and regulations, if you will,
that we have to follow and sometimes they get in our way.
I think one of the things that we've seen since the
previous Congress where we've testified on this, on the
previous bill from the House, since that time we have a new MOU
that, I think, has given us some new direction. I think that
our agency is also working on some updated policy that will
hopefully bring better consistency across the agency. Also, we
have ongoing training that we're starting to do for our folks.
So I think all those things will help us as we better
understand the issues and streamline our processes. Are we
where we need to be? We aren't yet, but I believe we're getting
Senator Cantwell. So is that a yes or no on your seeing
something take longer than three days when there was a real
Mr. Ruhs. Yes, ma'am, I've seen things take longer than
three days when they shouldn't have.
Senator Cantwell. When it was a real emergency?
Mr. Ruhs. Yes.
Senator Cantwell. Okay, if you could get us that
information I would so appreciate it.
Does it make sense to release utilities from liability if
it takes BLM, for example, four days to respond to a non-
Mr. Ruhs. Yes, and I believe that if we're working together
on a vegetative management plan that hopefully we won't see
those kind of situations as we go forward. I would like to
think that as we work with the Committee that we can deal with
those liability issues and certainly make them better for all
Senator Cantwell. Well, I think we have over here--in the
Senate bill. At least that's my opinion, so I think we have a
lot of flexibility.
I wanted to ask about tribal issues. Obviously BLM covers a
lot of land, but all lands under the jurisdiction of the
Secretary of the Interior, including national parks and
wildlife refuges and tribal lands could be eligible--the bill
would require state and local governments to basically trump
tribal requirements on some of those lands. Is that a problem,
Mr. Miller or Mr. Hayden?
Mr. Miller. Yeah, from my perspective it would be entirely
inconsistent with the United States' trust responsibility to
Senator Cantwell. Mr. Hayden, any concerns there?
Mr. Hayden. Currently, I think tribal entities, as well as
other entities, are consulted on many of the projects that take
place in any case, correct? And I don't know how the Senate
bill would influence that or impact that because as part of our
categorical exclusion process today, tribal entities are
consulted as it is.
Senator Cantwell. Yes, we are talking about mostly the
Mr. Ruhs or Mr. Casamassa, do your agencies want to force
tribes to accept emergency and fire policies of the state or
counties which they are located in?
Mr. Casamassa. No.
Senator Cantwell. Mr. Ruhs?
Mr. Ruhs. I would agree with that.
Senator Cantwell. Thank you.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
The Chairman. Thank you.
I just have one question that was prompted by reference to
the memorandum of understanding with EEI, the Edison Electric
Institute. There was a promise that within 18 months they would
emphasize laws, regulations, and policies associated with
vegetation management for power line rights-of-way on federal
lands. And the agency also promises to work with non-
governmental parties to develop a process for coordinating
management of power rights-of-way on federal lands. This 18-
month deadline, I understand, is up February of '18. Where are
we in terms of the ability of the agencies to meet the
deadline? Is this process underway? Just give me a quick update
Mr. Casamassa. Yeah, Madam Chair, from the perspective of
the Forest Service, we are making some advancements when it
comes to working with and under that memorandum of
understanding. And I think that in the very near future we'll
see some of those advancements come to fruition.
The Chairman. Mr. Ruhs?
Mr. Ruhs. Madam Chair, we also are making progress. I can't
tell you exactly where we're at, but again, we've--are in the
process of developing new policy that takes the information out
of the MOU and puts it in place so that we can be consistent
across the agency, as well as implementation training for our
folks so that they know exactly what it is we've committed to.
The Chairman. So you figure you are on track, insofar as
meeting that deadline?
Mr. Ruhs. Yes, ma'am.
The Chairman. Good, good. Thank you.
Gentlemen, thank you for your appearance here this morning
and for the work that you are doing, certainly from the
utilities' perspective, oversight perspective, and within our
agencies. This is an issue that, I think, the Ranking Member
and I, along with many of our colleagues here, particularly
from the West, are trying to understand how we do better by our
policies to ensure that we can move efficiently, effectively
and without delay when it comes to things like vegetation
management, keeping not only property better protected and
safe, but also in an effort to ensure that lives are not at
risk. Wildfires are unpredictable and we saw that play out
certainly this last season.
Thank you for your participation, and I thank you each for
your willingness to work with the Committee as we work to
further enhance and build on these initiatives.
With that, the Committee stands adjourned.
[Whereupon, at 11:06 a.m. the hearing was adjourned.]
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