Your vehicle's actual top speed is 130 Mph, but the legal speed limit is 70 Mph. This is the ultimate metaphor for progress in a civilized society. From time to time, the disconnect between what could be and what is allowed must be realigned. That time arrived about a decade ago for utility professionals charged with utility vegetation management (UVM). We are finally making steps in the right direction.

Utilities across the United States are sometimes hampered in their vegetation management operations by competing government interests at the local, state and federal levels. In 1997, Arizona Public Service (APS) began the process of trying to get some consistency between the various federal jurisdictions wielding control over their transmission corridors. In 2000, Public Service of New Mexico (PNM) joined the fray and solicited the participation of nearly a dozen utilities in the Southwest and, although all the parties generally agreed on operational principles, they couldn't seem to move forward at the regional level. So in 2001, the companies approached the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) to see if the industry could garner support at the national level, reach an understanding with the agencies and push those results down through the jurisdictional levels.

The EEI Vegetation Management Task Force (VMTF) accepted the challenge. In addition to APS and PNM, member utilities Pacific Gas and Electric, American Electric Power, PEPCO Holdings/Connective, MidAmerican-PacifiCorp and Puget Sound Energy all provided substantial support and input for this effort.

On the federal agencies team were representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM); the National Park Service; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The BLM took on a lead role and provided strong direction throughout the process.

The goal of the joint VMTF/federal agencies working group was to establish a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for managing vegetation on electric transmission and other utility corridors crossing federal lands. The primary purposes of the MOU are to expedite agency approval and to help ensure consistency across those lands, which have become the cornerstone of the concept of integrated vegetation management (IVM).

ROADBLOCKS

When the industry first met with federal agencies, many hurdles had to be overcome, the greatest of which was the decentralization of the agencies themselves. For more than two decades, the federal land agencies had expended a great deal of energy downsizing and decentralizing. What this means today is that each forest district, BLM area, national park and wildlife refuge is governed by a local land manager who has sole authority over the activities that take place on that land. The manager must follow the law, but the law is based on his or her interpretation unless challenged in the courts, and the local authority receives little or no direction from a regional or national authority. Overall, the decentralization process was seen as a way to eliminate bureaucracy and expedite operations. In many cases, it works. But in the case of utility corridor management, it simply does not.

Mike Neal, the manager of forestry and special programs for APS, stated before Congress on May 3, 2006: “The three most recent major power outages in the United States were triggered by electric transmission line interaction with trees.” Neal continued, “The blackouts of July 2, 1996, Aug. 10, 1996, and Aug. 14, 2003, resulted in the loss of power to 2 million, 4 million and 50 million customers, respectively. In 2003, a tree-caused blackout in Italy left 55 million Europeans in the dark.

“The last major U.S. blackout led to intense review by utilities, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the North American Electric Reliability Council and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Among the most significant conclusions reached during this review was: the decentralized process and variable procedures for approving utility vegetation management activities for rights-of-way (ROW) across federal lands are an obstacle to timely and scientifically based vegetation management,” Neal concluded.

HIGHLIGHTS

The MOU is intended to facilitate the following mutually accepted goals, not listed in any particular order:

  • Maintain reliable electric service as in Appendix A of the agreement

  • Improve power line safety and electric utility worker safety in accordance with the National Electric Safety Code and Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards

  • Reduce the likelihood of wildfires and fire-induced interference with electric facilities

  • Attenuate soil erosion and water quality impacts within the electric utility ROW and on adjacent lands by using best management practices (BMPs)

  • Reduce the risk to human health, natural resources and the environment by promoting the use of IVM BMPs for maintaining vegetation near T&D lines

  • Streamline administrative processes for approving ROW maintenance practices

  • Promote local ecotypes in re-vegetation projects

  • Encourage public outreach to educate the public in general about the use and acceptance of IVM on ROW

  • Facilitate prompt evaluation and suppression of dangerous ROW conditions by the ROW holder and federal land management agencies

  • Facilitate prompt stabilization of damaged resources within the ROW and ensure that local land management plans, agency procedures, and ROW specific terms and conditions fully reflect and address the use of IVM to manage vegetation near electric T&D lines and other facilities

  • Incorporate IVM and BMPs, where appropriate, into the terms and conditions of the authorization, grant or permits to ensure sound management of natural ecosystems and the protection of natural resources.

In early 2004, the BLM and EPA seemed ready to sign. But memory of the blackout faded quickly and the working group again stalled. That is until June 2004 when 500,000 V of manmade lightning struck an overgrown tree in a national forest in Arizona. With respect to the federal agencies, APS was determined to chart a parallel course to the MOU process.

At the time of the incident, Congress was working on legislation that would eventually become the Energy Policy Act of 2005. APS began working with Arizona Rep. John B. Shadegg to seek a legislative solution to the problem. Coincidentally, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which had been having its own issues with a line crossing a segment of federal land, had approached California Sen. Diane Feinstein's office with a similar request.

A series of meetings over several months between congressional staffers, EEI, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the American Public Power Association ultimately led to the inclusion of the Shadegg amendment in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.


Bob Bell is a vegetation program manager at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. rwbz@pge.com

MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING

The language in the Shadegg amendment in the 2005 Energy Policy Act states:

(c) Access Approvals by Federal Agencies — Federal agencies responsible for approving access to electric transmission or distribution facilities located on lands within the United States shall, in accordance with applicable law, expedite any federal agency approvals that are necessary to allow the owners or operators of such facilities to comply with any reliability standard, approved by the commission under section 215 of the Federal Power Act, that pertains to vegetation management, electric service restoration, or resolution of situations that imminently endanger the reliability or safety of the facilities.

Although the verbiage may seem nonspecific, the practical implication required substantive action on the part of the federal land agencies. The agencies had to put a plan in place to expedite UVM operations on federal land. With the MOU in its final revision and awaiting signatures, on May 25, 2006, EEI President Tom Kuhn led a delegation of utility managers to meet with representatives from the federal land agencies and the EPA at the Department of Interior building, where Kuhn placed the final signature authorizing the MOU.