Trees on Easement Land: Are They Allowed or Not?

Back to Home Page

One of the primary points of contention between PG&E and the homeowners revolves around the issue of whether or not trees are allowed on easement land. PG&E adamantly demands that it has the right to remove all trees on our land. In all meetings with PG&E, only one time did it provide any actual source for its claim to the legal right to remove our trees. At our first meeting, a PG&E Maintenance Supervisor repeatedly waved a copy of our easement agreement in our faces. He did not say specifically where in the agreement it gives PG&E the right to kill our trees, PG&E has consistently refused to discuss where in the agreement it gives PG&E that right, and PG&E has offered no other source for its claim to that right.

Let us examine some of the supporting documentation:

1. According to the easement agreement in force, signed by PG&E:

There is a short list of what is not allowed on easement land. Trees are not on that list. This is clearly the reason why PG&E has allowed trees to grow on easement land, for the past 7 decades, some reaching 100' tall and others 6' in diameter.

2. According to PG&E's own website:

There is a page on PG&E's own website, entitled Natural Gas Pipeline Rights-of-way, which is clearly marked as being up to date in 2013. This page contains a section entitled Prohibited uses of rights-of-way. This contains a more modern, and much longer, list of what is not allowed on easement land. Still, on PG&E's official web page dedicated to this topic, trees are not on the list. Elsewhere on the page, if you click a link to display it, there is a mention that large trees might possibly need to be addressed due to possible impact. The nature of the impact is not mentioned. The clear implication is that in 2013 the official PG&E position is that most trees are not a problem, but that large trees may sometimes pose some type of problem.

3. What do industry guidelines have to say about trees?

According to the Natural Gas Pipeline Technology Overview, prepared by a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory in 2007, the primary reason why PG&E might want trees removed is to allow for uninhibited aerial inspection of the pipeline. In other words, tree removal is not required for safety reasons, but to decrease the cost of patrolling.

4. What does federal law have to say about pipeline safety?

The federal law that is applicable to pipelines is found in the Code of Federal Regulations. The content of the Code that concerns Pipelines is Title 49 – Transportation. The actual law is specified in the more than 1500 "Parts" that make up Title 49. Title 49 is divided into Subtitles, of which the applicable one is Subtitle B – Other Regulations Relating to Transportation. Under Subtitle B is Subchapter D – Pipeline Safety. This includes Part 190 through Part 199.

So what does federal law have to say about trees? Nothing at all. There is a section on patrolling, which is the technical term for monitoring of the pipe itself.

192.705 Transmission lines: Patrolling. (c) Methods of patrolling include walking, driving, flying or other appropriate means of traversing the right-of-way.

In other words, aerial patrolling is legal, but it is not mandatory. There is no doubt that aerial patrolling is cheaper.

According to federal law, Class 3 locations, such as ours, must be patrolled at least twice a calendar year. A PG&E representative told homeowners that PG&E has been patrolling our pipelines by "walking the line." It is unclear if that was a genuine claim that PG&E had actually walked the line over the recent decade, or if it was merely an attempt to mislead us by stating that the general patrolling method of PG&E, whenever it does patrolling, is to walk the line. Therefore, it is unclear if PG&E actually claims to have done any patrolling by walking the line in our area over the recent decade. However, the evidence seems extremely clear, so much so that it is most likely sufficient as to be demonstrable in a court of law, that PG&E physically could not have walked the line in our area for at least a decade, and perhaps much longer.

5. What does state law have to say about pipeline safety?

The state law that is applicable to pipelines is the State of California General Order No. 112-E. State law uses federal law as its basis, and adds additional, stricter requirements. What does state law have to say about trees? Nothing at all.

6. According to PG&E representatives, what is the pressing need to remove all trees?

First reason given:
Initially, a PG&E Maintenance Supervisor claimed that PG&E wants to use aerial patrolling to monitor our pipeline. Aerial patrolling is only practical if trees do not obstruct the airplane's view of the ground over the pipe. Aerial patrolling is simply cheaper, and he claimed that PG&E has the right to kill our trees and that it needs no other justification than the fact that aerial patrolling will save it money.

Second reason given:
When a PG&E Land Agent confessed that PG&E does not really have the right to kill our trees in order to be able to save money by changing its patrol method to aerial patrolling, the PG&E Maintenance Supervisor changed his reasoning. He claimed that roots can cause damage to trees, and so present a hazard that cannot be allowed. Removing the hazard will then enable aerial patrolling.

7. Conclusion

We homeowners do not claim to be experts on the law. Still, it seems that in modern times, utilities like to remove trees as a precaution and to enable cheaper aerial patrolling.

Federal Law does not seem to require trees to be removed.
California State Law does not seem to require trees to be removed.
Industry guidelines do not seem to indicate that tree removal is mandatory.
The original easement agreement certainly allows trees.
PG&E's own web site allows trees.
PG&E has allowed our trees to grow for decades, to huge sizes.

It seems that PG&E has violated federal law by not patrolling our pipeline at all in the recent decade, let alone the federally mandated twice per calendar year. After the San Bruno explosion, PG&E has come to realize that it must do patrolling. Aerial patrolling is much cheaper than walking the line. However, aerial patrolling requires tree removal. PG&E has acted extremely unethically in attempting to coerce homeowners, by intimidation and lies, to allow PG&E to remove trees, since PG&E has determined that paying for tree removal and then doing aerial patrolling is cheaper than walking the line. PG&E waved our easement agreement in our faces, but otherwise has shown itself completely unwilling to justify in any way its claim to the legal right to remove our trees. PG&E seems to care only about money.