Murkowski: Proper Vegetation Management Reduces Wildfires, Protects Electric Grid Reliability on Federal Lands

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, yesterday chaired a hearing to discuss the importance of vegetation management and how the nation’s utilities and our federal land managers work together to protect electric grid reliability and prevent wildfires. The committee also received testimony on two legislative proposals, both of which received support for their goals to improve the processes for approving and conducting vegetation management activities within and outside of electricity transmission and distribution facility rights-of-way. 

Murkowski opened the hearing by acknowledging how damaging hurricanes and other natural disasters can be on the electric grid and the real hardships people face without electricity. Most notably, one of the biggest dangers facing the nation in “keeping the lights on” is basic vegetation management around electricity transmission and distribution lines.

“Millions of acres are burning again in western states. Failing to keep power lines free of vegetation and so-called ‘hazard’ trees can be a cause of wildfires,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski pointed out the importance of allowing utilities to conduct proper vegetation management by highlighting as an example a blackout in 2003, caused by a single tree falling on a power line in Ohio that left 50 million people without power. That blackout led to the creation of mandatory reliability standards, which hold utilities strictly liable for damages that occur on federal lands. While utilities are subject to fines of up to $1 million per day for standard violations, they still need permission to maintain their lines on federal lands, which is not always granted in a reasonable timeframe.                                                  

“With 90,000 miles of power lines located on federal lands, utilities must cooperate with federal resource agencies to conduct this important work in a time-sensitive manner,” Murkowski said. “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.”

Murkowski and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., included a vegetation management provision in their broad, bipartisan Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017 (ENRA), S. 1460, which was introduced in June. The vegetation provision in ENRA is section 2310. The House of Representatives’ passed, H.R. 1873, the Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act, earlier this year on a bipartisan vote of 300-118.

Both measures seek to bring greater certainty and timeliness to the federal process for vegetation management and provide expedited access during emergency situations. In addition, both improve the National Environmental Policy Act compliance requirements for routine vegetation management work and attempt to bring fairness to the issues of liability.

Murkowski is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. An archived video and testimony from yesterday’s hearing are available on the committee’s website. Click here to view both rounds of Murkowski’s questions for witnesses.

Related Issues: Energy