Cut Vegetation Red Tape, Co-op CEO Says

As wildfires scorch the West, the CEO of Missoula Electric Cooperative urged Congress to streamline federal permitting processes that are adding costly delays to power line maintenance.

MEC CEO Mark Hayden urges Congress to cut red tape on federal environmental reviews involving power line maintenance. (Photo By: Ken Farnaso/House Small Business Committee)

MEC CEO Mark Hayden urges Congress to cut red tape on federal environmental reviews involving power line maintenance. (Photo By: Ken Farnaso/House Small Business Committee)

"Federal reforms are needed to cut red tape and make it easier for electric cooperatives to manage vegetation to limit downed power lines, prevent catastrophic fires and respond to emergencies," Mark Hayden told the House Small Business Committee Sept. 6.

"Regulatory barriers to proper vegetation and fuels management threaten not only the operations of our utility and the livelihoods of our members, but also of those businesses we serve," he said. "All this leads to higher costs, which, ultimately, are borne by the owners of our cooperative utility—our members."

In June, the House passed H.R. 1873, the Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act. The co-op-backed bill will provide "more consistent procedures and a streamlined process in order to better manage utility rights-of-way," Hayden said.

Yet significant delays persist when it comes to operation and maintenance activities that involve special use permits and federal environmental reviews.

Hard hit by a tree-killing mountain pine beetle, Missoula Electric requested permission from the U.S. Forest Service in December 2013 to bury six miles of overhead three-phase line. Approval came 18 months later.

"Most troubling to me is that the project qualified for categorical exclusion, meaning neither an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement was required," Hayden said. "I can only imagine the number of months or years project approval would have taken had those more in-depth investigations applied."

Earlier this year, the co-ops submitted a second request for burial of a four-mile power line in a right of way. Hayden said the Forest Service is asking if the project can be postponed until next spring.

"The status quo is not an option. We need streamlined, expedited procedures that allow for timely implementation of projects to protect the long-term health of our forests, our small businesses, and the overall economies of the communities we serve," Hayden said.

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