Pacific Gas & Electric is moving to cut down thousands of oaks, redwoods and elms across the Bay Area that block access to its natural gas pipelines, outraging city leaders who say the utility is disregarding local laws designed to protect trees.
The $500 million Pipeline Pathways project is a statewide initiative to clear obstructions from the utility company's 6,750 miles of gas lines from Bakersfield to Eureka. PG&E says it needs to remove the trees, shrubs and structures on private and public property to ensure pipeline safety -- a top priority in the aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
"While a lot of work has focused on the pipe itself, this project deals with how we can properly maintain our pipeline system in a safe working condition," said PG&E spokeswoman Debbie Felix. "This program is about making sure we have access."
But city leaders, while saying they are also concerned about safety, fret that cutting down thousands of trees would change the character of their communities, compromise privacy and hamper economic development. They're organizing petition drives and exploring their legal options.
Trees have already come down in some places, such as the Sunnyvale Municipal Golf Course. Other trees on the chopping block include many along Contra Costa Boulevard in Pleasant Hill, trees on Locust Street in downtown Walnut Creek and heritage trees on La Gonda Way in front of Danville town offices. Targeted trees are on both public and private land.
"Some of these trees are over 100 years old and it will take decades to restore them," Concord City Councilman Dan Helix said. "We just object to their approach and the fact that they developed their plans without talking to us or the people in the community."
Concord joined cities including Lafayette, Danville, Dublin, El Cerrito, Livermore, Walnut Creek, Pleasanton and Sunnyvale in a coalition opposed to PG&E's plan. Though Sunnyvale has since left the consortium, with officials saying they only joined to get legal advice and have been working collaboratively with PG&E.
On Tuesday Mayors of eight cities sent a letter asking PG&E CEO Anthony Earley for a meeting.
"We're looking into ... if PG&E can just come along and destroy our streets," said El Cerrito Mayor Janet Abelson. "What right do they have to do that?"
Rules vary from city to city, but permits -- and sometimes public hearings -- are typically required to remove trees from private property, often depending on their size and species. PG&E maintains its franchise agreements to operate and maintain gas pipelines give it authority to remove trees and structures near those pipelines. The company also argues that the California Public Utilities Commission's jurisdiction trumps local regulations, giving the utility the right to bypass the tree removal permit process. Finally, PG&E says the project isn't subject to review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
PUC spokesman Christopher Chow said in an email that his agency has "preemptory authority" over city, county or other public bodies over operation of utility property. He also said PG&E must have open communications with cities and counties where such work would be done.
In Walnut Creek, PG&E plans to cut down 735 trees in the next few months. Frustrated by a lack of information from the company, Mayor Kristina Lawson launched an online petition calling for PG&E to meet with residents to discuss the Pipeline Pathways project. By Tuesday the petition had more than 1,300 signatures.
"It is the most absurd project and I cannot believe that there isn't a better way," said Lawson, arguing that Walnut Creek hasn't received any evidence from PG&E that the existing trees -- some older than the pipelines -- pose any safety risk.
PG&E officials insist the project isn't about saving money but rather to gain access to lines, modernize equipment and use technology to ensure safety. And PG&E shareholders, not rate payers, are paying for the project.
"We cannot waste any time having to remove an encroachment that's over the top of the pipe before we can actually get to the pipe in an emergency situation," said Ivan Altamura, director of Pipeline Pathways program said at a Lafayette City Council meeting Monday.
As the backlash against the project grows, company spokeswoman Felix admitted PG&E must do a better job of communicating.
"We understand the frustration that cities are feeling," she said.
A coalition of cities including Concord, Walnut Creek and Danville hired Oakland-based law firm Meyers Nave, which has rejected PG&E's legal rationale and insists the company obtain local permits before removing any trees. In a March 20 letter to PG&E, Meyers Nave attorney John Bakker asserts local ordinances can't be overridden except by the CPUC, which he says has not done so for this project.
In Concord, city leaders immediately challenged the company's plan to cut down about 730 trees without abiding by the city's permit process. The utility agreed not to remove any protected trees on private property until city staffers have completed an inventory of targeted trees. PG&E also won't remove any city-owned trees until it reaches agreement with Concord on mitigation. Although the utility has offered to provide the city with two 15-gallon replacement trees for each tree it removes, Concord also wants reimbursement for costs associated with planting and watering them.
Walnut Creek officials say they may go to court to stop the project, or at least get it delayed.
"If PG&E shows up at your door and if they don't have (a permit) then they don't have a right to cut down your trees," Lawson said. "In the event that they show up tomorrow and start clear-cutting in town, we are prepared to go to court."
To see where PG&E's gas pipelines run, go to www.pge.com/safety/systemworks/gas/transmissionpipelines.
Staff writers Jennifer Modenessi and Joyce Tsai and correspondent Rick Radin contributed to this report. Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.