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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Tree Trimming and Vegetation Management Landowners


1. Is it true that electric utilities are required by federal law to cut down all the trees near their power lines?

No. In order to prevent power outages, federally approved reliability standards require utilities to manage vegetation growth along the path of their larger power transmission lines to prevent trees or other vegetation from contacting the power lines. However, federally approved reliability standards do not mandate or prohibit clear- cutting or any other particular method of vegetation management, nor do they apply to the smaller distribution lines that deliver power directly to your home.

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2. Who decides whether an electric utility can cut down a tree near a power line?

The choice of how to trim trees and manage vegetation growth near a power line is primarily made by the electric utility, subject to state and local requirements and laws, applicable safety codes, and any limitations or obligations specified in rights-of-way agreements.

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3. What is FERC's role?

FERC has no direct role in electric utility plans for tree trimming and vegetation management. FERC approves reliability standards that apply to electric transmission facilities (generally lines above 200,000 Volts, or 200 kV). Among these standards is one that requires sufficient clearance be maintained between trees and transmission lines for service reliability and safety purposes. Lower voltage distribution facilities (generally lines below 200 kV) are regulated by the utility regulatory commissions within each state. Individual state regulatory commissions have the authority to set vegetation management standards for distribution lines.

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4. How can I tell whether the tree trimming around my lines is for the transmission or distribution system?

The power lines running in front of your house on wooden or metal poles are usually distribution lines. High towers with multiple lines are most often transmission lines. Most, but not all, vegetation management activities that affect homeowners involve local distribution, not transmission, and are subject to state and local requirements. To be certain, you can call your local utility or state regulatory commission.

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5. The power lines near my house don't seem to be anywhere near the trees, so why is the electric utility trimming my trees anyway?

There are two reasons for this. First, electric utilities are required to maintain the appropriate clearance between trees and transmission lines at all times. For example, in the summer, power lines sag as they expand, due to air temperature and heavy use. Clearances around the lines must account for this, as well as wind, which causes the lines to sway. So on a cool, still day, it may appear that there is ample, or even excessive, clearance that is needed for hot or windy day. Second, electric utilities usually prune or remove vegetation to a distance greater than the minimum clearances to account for future growth, movement of trees or power lines due to wind, conductor sag due to heat and line loading, and other factors.

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6. But the trees the electric utility wants to cut are in my yard. Why can't I stop the electric utility from cutting down or trimming my trees?

An electric utility is granted an easement or a right-of-way on private property in order to build and maintain electric power lines. The terms of a utility right-of-way, defining the rights of the parties for building and maintaining electric lines, are specified in rights-of-way agreements, these agreements are usually attached to a property deed. If you do not have a copy, you may contact the utility company that owns the transmission line to obtain a copy of the right-of-way agreement for your property.

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7. What are my rights as a landowner?

Landowner rights are usually negotiated as part of the right-of-way agreements executed between the utility company and the current or previous landowner and may be attached to the property deed. Right-of-way agreements describe the rights of the parties for building and maintaining electric lines. Such agreements are subject to the review of local regulatory authorities, and/or the courts. As noted above, you may contact the utility company that owns the transmission line to obtain a copy of the right-of-way agreement for your property.

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8. Who is responsible for determining the rights of landowners?

The rights of landowners with respect to trees and power lines are not established by FERC. In the majority of cases, states have the authority to approve the location or siting of transmission and distribution lines and, therefore, oversee these issues.

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9. Tree trimming seems like a local issue. Why is the federal government involved?

Tree trimming around power lines is a local issue, but vegetation growth also affects interstate transmission lines regulated by FERC. Tree contact with transmission lines was the leading cause of the August 2003 blackout that affected 50 million people in the Northeast United States and Canada. As a result of the 2003 blackout, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 granting FERC the authority to review, approve, and enforce mandatory reliability standards for the nation's bulk-power system. As part of those reliability standards, FERC approved a vegetation management standard applicable to large interstate transmission facilities (200 kV and above) and limited, lower voltage facilities that are determined to be critical to the reliability of the bulk-power system.

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10. What is the federal rule or regulation governing transmission line vegetation management and what does it require?

The Vegetation Management Reliability Standard, FAC-003, establishes a minimum clearance between trees and transmission lines in the right-of-way, which must be maintained at all times in order to achieve service reliability and public safety. The standard does not specify how a transmission company should conduct its vegetation management (e.g., pruning, herbicides or tree removal). Rather, it specifies that the company must manage its vegetation plan to minimize electricity outages from power line contact with trees in or adjacent to the transmission line rights-of-way. Reliability Standard FAC-003 can be found here: (http://www.nerc.com/files/FAC-003-1.pdf Leaving FERC).

The current standard only requires that a minimum clearance distance be achieved. Decisions related to any clearance practice that goes above and beyond the minimum clearance distance set in the standard are at the sole discretion of the transmission owner, subject to applicable requirements set by state and local authorities.

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11. Does FERC write the rules governing utility vegetation management? How is industry involved?

Through a public process, FERC certified the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) as the Electric Reliability Organization with the responsibility for developing and enforcing mandatory standards to protect the reliability of the bulk-power system. NERC creates these standards, including the vegetation management standard, through an open and inclusive process with extensive input from electric utilities and other interested stakeholders. FERC's role is limited to approving or remanding standards proposed by NERC and, along with NERC, enforcing those standards. FERC also has the authority to direct NERC to write a new standard, or revise an existing standard, to address a specific reliability matter.

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12. Does FERC require electric utilities to clear-cut trees on rights-of-way?

No. As noted above, electric utilities are not required or prohibited by FERC to use any particular method to meet the minimum clearance (e.g., clear cutting the right-of-way, use of herbicides, selective pruning, etc.). A utility may choose the method of maintaining clearance, subject to the applicable right-of-way agreements, state or local laws and ordinances, and applicable safety codes.

Proper techniques for utility vegetation management work are outlined in best management practice booklets, which can be ordered at: http://secure.isa-arbor.com/webstore/Standards-and-Practices-C21.aspx Leaving FERC.

Consumer tree care information (including information on utility pruning) can be found at http://www.treesaregood.com/treecare/treecareinfo.aspx Leaving FERC.

General questions related to proper vegetation management can also be directed to the Utility Arborist Association: http://www.utilityarborist.org Leaving FERC.

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13. Can FERC order companies to meet only the minimum clearance under the reliability standard and go no further?

No. FERC has no authority to do so. As stated above, to maintain minimum clearances at all times, transmission owners must often prune or remove vegetation to greater distances than the minimum. There may also be reasons other than the standard that affect a company's vegetation management practices, such as policies established by states, a desire to improve reliability above the minimum requirements (and thereby reduce the possibility of penalties for non-compliance), reducing the cost of frequent tree- trimming, and the terms of any individual agreements with property owners. All of these potential issues lie outside FERC's jurisdiction.

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14. Couldn't FERC use its enforcement ability to resolve complaints over how transmission utilities conduct their vegetation management?

FERC can only enforce compliance with the requirements outlined in FAC-003. This standard does not dictate, thus FERC cannot enforce, how an electric utility chooses to comply, or whether their compliance efforts exceed the minimum clearances required by the standard.

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15. Are utilities required to replace trees or vegetation removed from rights-of-way?

No. There is no federally approved reliability standard addressing this issue. Right-of- way agreements or state or local environmental laws or regulations may address this issue. While not mandated, good utility practices can include promotion of desirable, stable, low-growing plant communities, replanting, and replacing trees.

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16. Where can landowners go to get more information on how to address concerns they may have?

The electric utility company that operates in your service territory is the first place to go. The customer service phone number can usually be found on your electric bill. Questions about the transmission reliability standard for vegetation management can be answered by FERC, NERC, or the Regional Entity overseeing reliability locally. (See http://www.nerc.com/page.php?cid=1|9|119 Leaving FERC and click on your part of the country to find the contact information for the relevant Regional Entity.)

Questions about how an electric utility conducts its transmission vegetation management program, including its tree trimming and vegetation management plan, may be answered by the local state regulatory commission or other, relevant local governmental authority.

Questions about vegetation management for distribution lines should not be addressed to FERC or NERC. If your local electric company cannot answer your question, another good source of information is the state public utility (or public service) commission, which usually has a customer complaint service. If its staff cannot help, they may have other suggestions. For links to state commissions see http://www.naruc.org/commissions.cfm Leaving FERC.

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Updated: May 30, 2012