A rare event took place last month in Washington D.C. A bipartisan agreement was reached in a strongly divided U.S. Congress. It was the direct result of tremendous effort by America’s electric cooperatives successfully making the case that their member/citizens deserved better service from the federal government.
The new law was included in the omnibus bill signed by the president. It requires better cooperation from federal land management agencies when electric utilities care for their existing power lines crossing public lands. This is critical to providing safe and reliable electricity service in rural areas. It is particularly important for electric cooperatives whose service areas include large expanses of federal land. In CEC’s case, 56 percent of the land in our 5,300-square-mile service area is federally managed.
To understand the new law’s benefits we need to review past circumstances. Electric utilities must keep lines clear of tree and branch growth into and near our power lines in defined rights-of-way. This promotes service reliability and reduces wildfire risk. We also must make repairs and proactively replace equipment such as aged power poles or cracked insulators. This is necessary to meet safety and reliability standards required by state and federal law. In the past, receiving permission from the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management could take an unreasonably long period — five years or more in some cases. At one point, CEC had submitted 32 permits for renewal, paid $45,000 in fees and was still waiting after four years.
Simply stated, government people, systems and processes were not responsive to or concerned with our needs.
The new law simplifies approval processes, minimizes the need to receive approvals when utilities’ activities are addressed by submitted plans, and requires the use of schedules and timelines for approvals when needed. We will see considerable cost reductions and efficiency improvements as a result.
Our push for these changes began in 2014. Although I testified twice before a Congressional committee, credit for this successful outcome goes to a number of Oregon’s electric cooperatives, the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Kiel Weaver, a long-time Washington D.C. natural resources staff member who worked closely with us crafting the legislation. Collectively, we pursued the issue throughout the years and focused on it during each of our annual legislative conference trips to Washington, D.C. Major credit goes to Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat representing Oregon’s 5th District, for sponsoring the bill and teaming up with Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican representing Oregon’s 2nd District, to garner bipartisan support.
Pursuing legislative remedies takes a long time, involving a lot of people. I am pleased to report our work on this issue paid off as well as it did.
President and CEO