Vote Explanation for H.R. 1873 — Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act

H.R. 1873, the Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act, provides power companies with greater flexibility to conduct vegetation management activities in rights-of-way (ROW) on federal lands. This bipartisan legislation keeps critical environmental regulations in place, while making common-sense reductions to government bureaucracy in order to better manage the risks of forest fires and electricity outages. Over the past several years, both of these incidences have have caused human displacement and loss of life.

The growth of vegetation within utility ROWs can pose significant risks to the infrastructure needed to provide a continuous supply of electrical power, and trees can fall or otherwise make contact with overhead power lines, resulting in power outages or fires, which pose major threats to public safety.

Under current law, electric utilities must seek permission and approval from the appropriate federal land management agency — Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management — for their proposed vegetative management plan. These proposals are subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) to ensure that the provisions in these proposals comply with federal environmental laws. Although ROW corridors comprise a small fraction of all federal land, the impacts of mismanagement can be significant and catastrophic if a fire spreads to the surrounding areas.

Over the past several years, inconsistencies in federal agency requirements, coupled with delays in approval for utility companies to move forward with a vegetation management plan, have led to devastating forest fires and electrical blackouts throughout many western states. One of my Democratic colleagues who supported this legislation on the Natural Resources Committee explained to me how this caused a terrible forest fire in his district.

The bill seeks to address this problem by setting up an expedited and streamlined process for the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to approve companies’ vegetation management plans. It also would direct the Departments to modify regulations to minimize the need for case-by-case or annual approvals of routine vegetation management. In the past, utilities have had to resubmit plans every single year.

Additionally, facility and equipment operators couldn’t be held liable for wildfire damage if the Agriculture or Interior Departments don’t allow them to operate under a vegetation management plan or don’t respond to their request for the emergency removal of fallen trees or similar threats to transmission lines. This is reasonable, good-faith regulatory relief.

While I appreciate the concerns raised by some that this legislation could potentially undermine certain environmental protection laws in these narrow corridors, on balance I believe this is the kind of reasonable regulatory reform we need to improve public safety and reduce forest fires, which can be far more destructive to the environment than cutting a few trees.

For these reasons, I voted in support of this legislation, which passed the House with strong bipartisan support, 300–118.