Tree trimming: PUC may grant utilities authority to shut off power


Issue Date: October 5, 2011
By Christine Souza

Rural landowners remain concerned over a proposed California Public Utilities Commission decision that would give utility companies the authority to shut off power to a landowner's primary residence or place of business, if the utility says trees encroaching on power lines could pose a safety hazard and there is a dispute with the landowner over access.

Revisions were still being made late last month to a proposed decision that could be finalized by the full CPUC as early as this week. The utility companies—Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric Co.—approached the commission jointly, requesting that it make revisions to regulations dealing with landowners who obstruct vegetation management.

Although the proposed decision has been updated to document concerns raised this summer by the agricultural community, it retains provisions allowing the utilities to shut off power to customers.

California Farm Bureau Federation Associate Counsel Karen Norene Mills said allowing a utility to shut off power "reduces any interest the utility will have in trying to work things out with the landowner. The commission needs to start holding the utilities accountable for their actions against landowners when having this discussion. Rather than using shutting off power as a shield to protect people, in this case it is being used as a weapon to force landowners to concede to the utilities' request."

Mills said the proposed decision, prepared by PUC Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon, "does not recognize that there are times when the utility does not act reasonably."

"This gives the utility the authority to shut off power to a customer, even in the case where the trimming is for a transmission or distribution line that is the subject of a separate, negotiated easement between the parties," Mills said.

In his proposed decision, Simon acknowledged farmers' concerns, recognizing the balance between maintaining the power lines and trying to operate their farms. In his proposed decision, he said agricultural customers "would be hardest hit by this proposal, as their properties are crossed by thousands of miles of power lines."

Simon also noted other arguments against the utilities' joint proposal, including that it would allow a utility to turn off power at locations where no safety hazard exists and could create collateral harm by shutting off power to persons other than the customer.

But, he wrote, the commission's main concern "is the prevention of wildfires and outages caused by property owners who refuse to allow access to power line facilities for vegetation management activities."

"We recognize that shutting off power is a harsh remedy," Simon concluded, "but public safety and welfare is placed at grave risk when there is a breach of the required minimum clearances. In our judgment, the remedy is commensurate with the circumstances."

In opposing the decision, Farm Bureau noted that there "may be valid reasons for customers to balk at the timing or extent of vegetation management activities. The proposed rule unfairly provides the utility with carte blanche to shut off power when there is a legitimate dispute."

Tuolumne County property owner Mark Thornton said there should be some sort of appeal process to protect a property owner when dealing with utility companies regarding line-clearance issues.

"As a private property owner living in a mixed conifer area, I have had many experiences with PG&E line clearance practices, some positive, but many negative. I do not believe that they need this power of authority," Thornton said. "I ask that there be an administrative relief process to protect the property owner so that they can appeal the decision in the field. If that is not built into this rule, then the PUC is just accommodating industry requests and being insensitive to the public."

Farm Bureau's Mills said terms and conditions of access are governed by easement agreements between property owners and utilities. The commission has acknowledged it does not have jurisdiction to adjudicate easement disputes and must defer to the courts, yet fundamentally the shutoff rule would do just that, she said.

Farmer Bill DuBois Jr. of El Centro, in comments to the PUC, encouraged the commission to come up with a different solution. DuBois added that farmers and ranchers depend on the utilities' services to operate farms, dairies and feedlots and want to cooperate with utility companies.

"Utilities have an obligation to maintain the rights-of-way in a proactive, preventative manner, and not wait until a fire to rush in and mow down brush and vegetation without notice," DuBois said. "Scheduled, preventative maintenance by utilities is like scheduled, preventative maintenance on a tractor. It's better, cheaper and less disruptive to the operation of the farm."

The proposed decision also indicates that utilities would provide written notice at least five days before shutting off service, unless the vegetation condition poses an imminent safety hazard—in which case, no notice is required. It adds that the cost to reconnect service will be at the customer's expense.

If a final decision is not issued this week, Mills said CFBF will continue work to encourage development of a solution that balances the need to assure safe delivery of electricity with respect for private property owners' concerns.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.