Dave Markham’s testimony on wildfire mitigation helped establish America’s electric cooperatives as the anti-PG&E.
By Ted Case
The title of the January 28 hearing was enough to give Dave Markham, CEO of Central Electric Cooperative, pause: “Out of Control: The Impact of Wildfires on Our Power Sector and the Environment.”
The witness list before the House Energy and Commerce Committee included the head of Pacific Gas & Electric, the beleaguered California-based utility vilified for the role it played in the 2018 Camp Fire that claimed the lives of 85 people.
Fairly or not, every electric utility in the country had seemingly been tarnished by PG&E’s myriad operational failures.
Energy and Commerce is arguably the most powerful committee in Congress. It is known for its incisive, rapid-fire questioning. It is not a place for the unprepared.
Nevertheless, Markham accepted Congressman Greg Walden’s (R-OR) invitation to appear before the committee. Walden is his congressman, and Markham had his own story to tell about wildfires—and how America’s electric cooperatives are nothing like PG&E.
Markham was no stranger to the U.S. Congress. He had testified twice before the House Resources Committee about the importance of streamlining vegetation management practices when seeking approval for routine maintenance and upgrades of power lines and poles in utility rights-of-way on federal lands. His compelling testimony on frustrating delays with federal land management agencies helped create momentum for legislation in the FY 2018 appropriations bill that intended to streamline the permitting process on federal lands.
But Markham was back on Capitol Hill to send another message about the yet-to-be implemented law. In his submitted testimony, he wrote it was imperative “land management agencies establish timelines and milestones that promote efficiency, accountability and consistency between federal land managers and utilities.”
A day before the hearing, Markham met with Walden to preview his testimony and share CEC’s frustration with getting approval from the U.S. Forest Service to move a power pole a mere 20 feet to reduce the risk of wildfire.
“Do you have a photo of that pole?” Walden asked.
“I can get one,” Markham said.
Walden, former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is a champion of responsible management of federal lands. As a former broadcaster, he also understands how to create an interesting narrative.
At the hearing, during his customary opening statement, Walden projected the photo of the single CEC power pole on the committee’s large screens.
“CEC’s service territory is 56% federal land, and when they tried to move the pole 20 feet to mitigate against the threat of wildfire, they faced significant delays,” Walden told his colleagues, many of whom stared incredulously at the screen.
He said government red tape had created an untenable situation where the U.S. Forest Service was unable to give approval to move one pole to an area that is safer and more accessible.
Walden concluded his statement by arguing, “Delays in this sort of maintenance effort can have deadly consequences, especially when combined with our poorly managed federal forests.”
This dramatic opening paved the way for Markham to differentiate Oregon’s electric cooperatives from PG&E, highlighting that co-ops have a more difficult challenge compared to the California utility, which has 30% federal ownership. Markham testified how electric co-ops work diligently to keep the rights-of-way cleared, and transmission and distribution systems maintained.
The image of the single power pole struck a chord with Walden’s colleagues, many of whom followed up with questions about whether it was an isolated incident. Markham replied the problem was widespread throughout the West, and the land management agencies need to “make vegetation management a priority over approving a driveway on federal land.”
The lack of prioritization also concerned Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader, a member of the committee who had been the Democratic sponsor of the vegetation management legislation Congress passed. In his questions to witnesses, Schrader lamented the lack of progress with the law’s regulations and with maintaining rights-of-way because of land management delays.
“We can remove hazardous fuels,” he said. “It’s not that complicated. That’s jobs in rural Oregon.”
After a marathon-like four hours and seven minutes of testimony and questions from more than 20 members of Congress, the hearing concluded. Predictably, the hearing covered a range of issues—from climate change to forest management—but the image of a single-pole carried the day. It was an example of the challenges electric co-ops face every day serving some of the most difficult territory in the nation.
The hearing ended with Markham’s request to ensure another Camp Fire never happens.
“All we’re looking for is accountability and consistency and to get these issues resolved,” Markham said.