If you love California’s trees, call your Assembly Member to vote NO on SB 396 (Vote is MONDAY!)

FAST Action! – Call your assemblymember and tell them on today and Monday to vote “NO” on SB 396.

This is a sleeper issue…

Most people won’t notice if this bill passes until a lot of trees – our source of clean air, pollution reduction, erosion control, shade, beauty and habitat of our local ecosystem, are lying in pieces at our feet, in our wilderness areas, our parks, and in our own backyards.

This bill exists because a particular “investor-owned” utilities (IOUs) – PG&E – wants to use the cheapest and least effective method of fire prevention. In fact, PG&E’s website states that they cut down over 1 million trees a year as part of “Enhanced Vegetation Management” (EVM), as these expenses are charged back to us taxpayers as “maintenance costs,” even though this system creates wind tunnels along transmission lines, and causes vegetation to be dryer. What their site DOESN’T say that they are the only IOU to retain EVM as a central tenet of its wildfire prevention; the others are following the science and modernizing their unsafe systems.

SB 396 would give companies like PG&E unprecedented authority to ignore environmental considerations, the rights of private landowners and homeowners, and the public interest, even when doing so increases the fire risk for landowners and communities.

Minimal script: I’m calling from [zip code] and I want Assemblymember [____] to vote “NO” on SB 396 – Forestry on Monday. Instead, I want the legislature to require that all investor-owned utilities be required to upgrade their equipment and wiring to best modern practices.

Contact (you can also email over the weekend):

  • State Assemblymember Steve Bennett (CA-37): email, SAC (916) 319-2037, SB (805) 564-1649, VTA (805) 641-3700
  • State Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin (CA-44): email, SAC (916) 319-2044, CAM (805) 482-1904, OX (805) 483-4488
  • Not your people? Don’t know?: findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov

Deeper Dive

Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) has been logging wide swaths along their utility power lines on private, state, and federal lands.

PG&E claims that clearing trees near their power lines is necessary to prevent wildfires. But landowners feel that PG&E has far too much discretion in deciding whether to remove trees and frequently takes trees that were in no danger of coming into contact with a line.

It is understandable that many folks have been taken in by the idea that trees are the cause of wildfires and therefore must be cut down, because illegally untrimmed branches hitting bare power lines were directly implicated in the 2017 Napa and Sonoma fires that claimed 46 lives, scorched 245,000 acres, and incinerated 8,900 homes. Fulfilling the basic Vegetation Management (VM) requirement for distribution lines of maintaining a 4-foot radial trim around distribution lines may well have prevented that disaster, but failed VM only accounts for about 25 to 35% of ignition sources. Other ignition sources include equipment (failing transformers, expulsion fuses, etc.), animals, vehicles and even balloons. It is in reality the vulnerability of antiquated bare power lines and degraded transmission systems that have caused 100% of utility-associated wildfires.

Other electric utilities in California, like Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric have focused on upgrading their infrastructure in order to prevent wildfires. This includes upgrading their transmission lines with reinforced, triple-insulated conductor (wire), new fire-resistant poles, modernized support equipment, and computerized circuit breaker protection. Because of these upgrades, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric have both significantly reduced the number of wildfires caused by their transmission lines. Unfortunately, PG&E has instead decided to focus on Enhanced Vegetation Management aka tree removal; a flawed strategy that is harming the environment and failing to keep us safe.

Now, a proposed bill would give PG&E even more power to remove trees without landowner consent. SB 396 (Dahle) would give electrical utility companies “full discretion” to enter private property without permission of the landowner or homeowner; trim and cut trees, including the felling of live trees, with no limit on the number or size of the trees cut; and then leave the downed trees, limbs, and debris for the owner to deal with. Under SB 396, if the landowner requests that the felled trees be removed, the electrical corporation is under no time constraint to do so and can ignore the request entirely if the electrical corporation considers it unsafe or impractical to clean up the downed trees, wood, and debris. The bill gives landowners no authority to protect their property interests except for “an opportunity to be heard.”

By allowing electrical corporation contractors to leave behind downed trees, wood, and debris, the bill not only makes clean up the responsibility of the landowner, it also increases the fire risk for the landowner and the community by increasing the amount of flammable debris on the forest floor.

The Bill gives no real opportunity for landowners to prevent or appeal a decision by a contractor to remove trees on their property. The utility need only make a “good faith” effort to even let the landowner know that they will be logging trees on their property. The bill gives landowners no authority to protect their property interests except for “an opportunity to be heard.” Our typical environmental laws, like CEQA and NEPA, are also powerless to reign in these actions because vegetation management is an exempt activity.

In sum, SB 396 gives electrical corporations and their contractors unprecedented authority to ignore environmental considerations, the rights of private landowners and homeowners, and the public interest, even when doing so increases the fire risk for landowners and communities.”

[Note: The Senate Vote on SB 396: 38-0 is NOT the bill that is on the legislative website now. It has been massively amended. We are NOT opposing the original Senate version.]

1.  Existing legislation AB 2911 (Friedman, Chapter 641, Statutes of 2018) already provides sufficient authority for an electrical corporation to prune and remove trees as needed.

2.  SB 396 exempts all other laws without qualification as to which laws are exempt, so there is no requirement that vegetation management under this specific authority be done in compliance with any other environmental protection law, except California Forest Practice Rules and the California Coastal Act. This potentially eliminates crucial regulations from local county ordinances,  and state agencies such as the Regional Water Quality Control Boards and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, limiting enforcement oversight. 

3.  SB 396 amendments state that the California Forest Practice Rules (CFPR) will apply. However, CFPR is unworkable because this would require CalFire to create a complex database to input and organize the information provided by PG&E and any other electrical corporations to track each and every tree contractor’s dates and locations. CalFire will need to add many staff to do this. It will especially require a massive increase in Registered Professional Foresters to oversee the tree work being done. None of this is in place at present.              

During the hearing, PGE was questioned about how the amendments would address the County of Santa Cruz’s statement that PG&E’s logging is “egregious and reckless.” The PG&E spokesman assured the Committee that this is resolved by the amendment requiring all actions to adhere to Forest Practice Rules and the California Coastal Act. But even before EVM, CalFire did not track or inspect all the contracted tree crews cutting along the power lines. This is because CalFire has depended upon complaints in the past for its oversight and does not have a fully operative system in place to provide proactive enforcement, as described above.

4.     This bill will not reduce wildfires because Enhanced Vegetation Management does not work. It does not prevent wildfires. 75% of fire ignitions are unrelated to vegetation. You can never cut enough trees to protect PG&E’s unsafe, out-of-date bare wire system. Even former CEO of PGE Bill Johnson said, “You can cut all the trees in California and still have utility fires”.

5.     The legislature and the CPUC can greatly reduce the number of fires by requiring PG&E to comprehensively modernize their systems, , similar to that done by SCE. The result of SCE circuit upgrades is SCE cuts 2 trees per mile while PG&E cuts 152 trees per mile, and despite aggressive tree removals, PG&E wires continue to cause record-breaking fires; SCE does not, having rapidly installed reinforced, insulated wires and high tech computerized circuit protection to stop any sparking within a second.

6.     This bill tramples on homeowners rights, leaving them vulnerable (as is now happening) to continuing intimidation and failing to provide adequate time to seek expert help if trees are in contention. While there is merit in clearly defining “Notice and Opportunity to be Heard,” due to the delay in implementation,  PG&E will continue to define its own “Notice and Opportunity to be Heard” until the CPUC sets a formal definition by January, 2025. That means people may not have due process protections for up to two and a half years.

7.     Under existing law San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) provides a reasonable and respectful notification and opportunity-to-be-heard process: Landowners are given a full month’s notice, and after evaluating the impacted trees, may appeal. PG&E should adopt SDG&E’s system; this would have made the original version of SB 396 (now Section 8386.7) entirely unnecessary. 

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