Permitting delays worry Central Electric

Inability to perform routine maintenance could increase fire risk, CEO says

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — Central Electric Cooperative is finding it harder to provide safe, reliable electricity to its customers in Central Oregon because of permitting delays with federal land management agencies, its CEO told members of Congress Wednesday.

Federal law requires the Redmond-based cooperative to have permits to conduct routine maintenance on public land, such as replacing outdated transmission lines or removing trees at risk of encroaching on overhead wires, said Dave Markham, Central Electric’s president and CEO. Other state and federal law requires the utility to keep the lines up-to-date, safe and functioning, leaving it stuck in the middle when it can’t renew its right-of-way permits, he said.

“We are now confronted by an extensive, difficult and expensive process — including a 30-day public comment period — in order to conduct required routine maintenance on a power line that has existed for more than 50 years,” Markham told members of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Markham said Central Electric began the renewal process for 32 permits with the Bureau of Land Management in May 2010, and four years and $45,000 in processing fees later, the permits have yet to be renewed.

He questioned the efficiency of requiring an environmental impact study on an area where power lines have stood for decades.

“I can see if you were building a new line out in a new area where you may have to do studies that are going to take some time, and we plan for that. But to do maintenance on your system, it shouldn’t take a long process,” Markham told The Bulletin after the hearing.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, attended the hearing so he could introduce Markham. Part of the problem, he said, is that different federal supervisors in various federal agencies are interpreting the permitting requirements in vastly different ways.

“We’ve got to get some consistency and some common sense into the process,” he said.

If Congress needs to change the law regarding utilities’ rights of way, that is one option to consider, he said.

“That beats the heck out of a blackout or a brownout or a big fire” which can be caused by trees coming into contact with high-voltage lines, he said. “We get all of those when you have this problem escalating where you can’t replace failing lines, you can’t trim trees that are going to cause arcs in major systems.”

Markham recalled one instance when Central Electric had identified a problem tree it wanted to remove, and while it was awaiting a response on a permit, it fell and sparked a large fire. Central Electric was held financially responsible, and ended up passing along the millions of dollars of costs to its customers, he said.

In addition, the BLM’s January draft environmental impact statement regarding the treatment of sage grouse included the proposal to bury power lines throughout the bird’s habitat as part of a government-wide effort to keep the bird from being listed as an endangered species.

In Central Oregon, this would mean burying 464 miles of transmission and distribution lines at an estimated cost of $241 million, Markham said. La Pine-based Midstate Electric Cooperative projected its resulting costs at $115 million, which would translate into a 33 percent rate increase for its customers.

For the Harney Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Hines, which serves an area the size of West Virginia across southeastern Oregon and northwestern Nevada, burying lines would cost each of its 4,000-plus members $400,000, he said. This would put the cooperative out of business, he said.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., asked Markham how those figures compared to estimates of what it would cost utilities if the sage grouse is listed as an endangered species. Markham said Central Electric had not prepared such an estimate.

Nearly 7,000 miles of power lines run across national forests with moderate-to-high fire risk, said Jim Peña, the U.S. Forest Service’s associate deputy chief of the national forest system.

The Forest Service has partnered with utilities to conduct extra thinning near rights of way to help reduce the risk of fire, he said. In 2012, 232 fires started either from vegetation touching lines or power arcing from wires to trees, he said. The following year, 113 fires began along power line corridors, he said.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com