Editorial: Rural electric coops are not the enemy

Published May 11, 2014 at 12:01AM

It would be crazy if Oregon’s electric cooperatives could not cut down a tree that posed an imminent threat of downing a power line and sparking a wildfire.

But it can be that crazy.

Oregon’s electric cooperatives are not the enemy. The federal government is treating them as if they are.

Rural co-ops need to be able to provide safe, reliable power for their customers. They can’t do that if they can’t renew existing permits across federal land. They can’t do that if they can’t get in to do important maintenance on their federal rights of way.

Central Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Redmond, needed to cut down just such a tree that it was concerned might take out a line and spark a fire. While it was waiting for approval, the tree went down and started a fire. David Markham, president and CEO of the co-op, told a Congressional panel Wednesday his co-op ended up passing along the millions of dollars in costs to its customers.

Thank you, federal land managers.

Even the Bonneville Power Administration, an arm of the federal government, testified complaining about similar problems.

The leaders from the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management who attended the Wednesday Congressional hearing used their testimony to talk about how they are working to find solutions. But there was a chasm between their words and reality. It was as if they didn’t hear the testimony before them and soldiered on with platitudes.

For instance, Ed Roberson, the Bureau of Land Management’s assistant director of resources and planning, went into proud detail about an memorandum of understanding it was working on renewing with electric companies “intended to protect human health and the environment and to the principles of cooperation, timely communication, and consistent management, among others. The current MOU has expired, but its operational principles are still in use and the parties are currently working toward renewing and updating the MOU.”

Dear Mr. Roberson, if these “operational principles” are causing problems like those experienced by Central Electric they aren’t worth renewing. It’s a memorandum of misunderstanding.

Members of Congress at the hearing were clearly frustrated.

“We have got to get some consistency and common sense in this process,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., told the federal managers: “You have a lot more important things to do than overregulating existing rights of way and/or going through a repetitive process or a new process for an existing right of way because you don’t have the paperwork from 1934 or there wasn’t any in 1934.”

We doubt there will be much improvement. DeFazio said he remembers covering the same ground 10 years ago.