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Recent updates to environmental regulations covering power lines that run through national forests and grasslands are good news for electric cooperatives that maintain infrastructure in these often isolated, rugged areas.
The U.S. Forest Service’s final rule, which took effect Nov. 19, streamlines requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act for renewing permits and maintaining existing energy infrastructure. It also covers special-use permits for new power lines and communication equipment.
Co-ops with service territories that include national forest lands must file regular vegetation management and operating plans or agreements with the U.S. government. But frequent delays in federal approval of those plans increase the chance of problem trees taking down power lines, resulting in lengthy outages and costly repairs.
Amanda Opp, right-of-way supervisor for Flathead Electric Cooperative, said the new NEPA rule for national forests will drive efficiency and consistency in the agency and allow co-ops to avoid “a waiting period for emergency vegetation management or emergency maintenance to our facilities.”
The Kalispell, Montana-based co-op has distribution lines and distributive transmission throughout Kootenai and Flathead national forests.
NRECA supported the rule and said it will enhance the reliability of the electric grid by reducing the threat of wildfires from vegetation conditions within transmission and distribution rights of way and abutting federal land.
The final rule provides six “categorial exclusions” that will improve infrastructure access to address reliability issues or emergencies such as wildfires. Importantly, these exclusions apply to ROW activities that the federal agency has determined do not individually or collectively carry significant harm to the environment.
“We see this as helpful,” said Opp. “It gives co-ops a little more flexibility to do what they need to do.”
One key exclusion will facilitate special-use approvals for existing transmission, distribution and communications infrastructure on fewer than 20 acres of national forest land. Another will speed permit renewals that are strictly clerical in nature.
“Last year, the agency had a backlog of more than 5,000 applications in need of environmental analysis and decision, on top of the approximately 3,000 new special-use permit applications that are submitted annually,” said Janelle Lemen, NRECA regulatory issues director.
“They have been chipping away at that number, and these categorial exclusions will greatly improve timely approvals, which is essential for co-ops to ensure system reliability and mitigate hazards.”
The Forest Service held an informational webinar on Dec. 2, where it said it plans to soon issue follow-up guidance on implementing the rule. It is also considering additional process improvements as part of the agency’s broader permit streamlining efforts for infrastructure, special use and restoration projects.