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SunZia power line debate gains steam

Pictured is an image from a SunZia brochure about the company’s high-voltage transmission project.
Pictured is an image from a SunZia brochure about the company’s high-voltage transmission project.
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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s political leaders are stepping front and center into the fray over the SunZia transmission line – a proposed 550-mile project to carry renewable energy from central New Mexico to western markets.

In an Aug. 16 letter to the Bureau of Land Management, Gov. Susana Martinez threw her support behind the U.S. Department of Defense, which has insisted since last year that a BLM proposal to route SunZia through the northern extension area of White Sands Missile Range could disrupt military activities and threaten national security.

Martinez warned that if the BLM doesn’t back down by accepting Army recommendations to either bury a portion of the line or completely reroute it north of the extension area, it could have a “potentially devastating impact” on military capabilities at White Sands and at Holloman Air Force Base. That, in turn, could mean thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in wages lost.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., has jumped in on the opposite side. In an Aug. 19 letter to the BLM, Heinrich accused the DOD of undermining BLM efforts to develop an environmental impact statement by continuously changing its position on siting for the line.

Heinrich warned that the Army’s behavior could not only kill SunZia, it could discourage other private investment in transmission development nationwide by destroying the credibility of the DOD’s Siting Clearinghouse – an inter-agency entity set up to improve the approval process for infrastructure on or near DOD facilities and operations.

“The whole purpose of the Siting Clearinghouse was to establish the bases so that when (developers) go above and beyond in their efforts to find good siting, the process will move more easily and expeditiously,” Heinrich told the Journal . “That creates more certainty for investors to take risks. But if the process doesn’t provide that certainty, then why would investors participate in it?”

Moreover, many jobs and wages also tied to SunZia could be lost if the project collapses, Heinrich said.

Both sides hope to influence a final decision by BLM on whether to approve the current environmental impact statement on SunZia – published in June with the controversial extension area route intact – or whether to reopen the process for changes.

“We’re shooting for a record of decision in late September or early October,” said Dave Goodman, planning and environmental coordinator for the BLM in New Mexico. “We’ll consider any new information we get before that decision is made.”

White Sands said the stakes are high.

“Without mitigating measures, the line as currently sited presents a very real, adverse mission impact to the missile range,” the base said in a statement sent to the Journal on Aug. 29. “It would constrain the ability to test certain systems that protect our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, putting them at risk. This is unacceptable to the Department of Defense.”

DOD objections

The DOD has said a 45-mile stretch of the line could interfere with low-flying aircraft, while creating difficulties when shooting down missiles during tests.

A DOD technical working group says those problems could be resolved by burying 35 miles of the line or by moving the whole thing north – completely outside of the extension area – which is used as a “call-up” zone where local ranchers are evacuated during tests.

In its statement, White Sands said New Mexico could lose jobs and revenue associated with testing. The missile range supports 9,000 workers and their families, with salaries generating $2.3 million per day for the regional economy.

SunZia representatives say burying the line as DOD proposes is technically unfeasible and cost prohibitive. And moving the line north of the extension zone would mean at least a year or more of additional BLM assessment of environmental impacts, effectively killing the project.

Heinrich said that’s unreasonable, given that the BLM originally targeted late 2010 for a final record of decision, and the project’s collapse would cost New Mexico an estimated $1.2 billion in private investment and thousands of temporary and permanent jobs.

“With an expanded scope and supplemental EIS, a record of decision would be unlikely before the end of 2014, representing a delay of at least four years,” Heinrich wrote in his letter to the BLM. “Moreover, DOD and WSMR have not yet provided any assurances that the route that they currently prefer will still be acceptable to them at any time in the future.”

In fact, Heinrich said the project delays “threaten the credibility” of DOD’s Siting Clearinghouse. That’s because the BLM already has made huge efforts to accommodate Army concerns, he said, and because the DOD apparently backtracked on a commitment to approve SunZia after the BLM agreed to move a section of the transmission line farther north within the extension area.

The DOD appeared to make that commitment in a July 2011 letter from the Siting Clearinghouse to the BLM but then backtracked, Heinrich said.

“BLM did what the DOD asked them to do, but the goal posts seemed to have moved,” Heinrich told the Journal . “I think the BLM has done the best it can do in a controversial situation.”

The BLM’s Goodman said his agency also understood from the DOD’s July 2011 letter that it was ready to support BLM’s proposed route.

‘Green’ to go?

The line segment referred to by Heinrich runs alongside the Gran Quivira Ruins, which are part of the Salinas Pueblo Mission National Monument. BLM had moved that line section three miles south to avoid vision impact on the ruins.

But after the Army objected to that in a May 2011 letter, the BLM agreed to move it back six miles north to the other side of Gran Quivira, Goodman said.

“In response to the May 2011 letter, we moved it back north even farther than was requested by the military,” Goodman told the Journal. “We then read the DOD’s July 2011 letter saying SunZia was ‘green’ to go, which we interpreted as a project with no DOD objections.”

H. David Belote, a retired Air Force colonel who was executive director of the DOD Siting Clearinghouse from fall 2010 to June 2012, said Heinrich and the BLM are correct.

“We did approve the route that exists today … We preferred a more northerly route, but it was crystal clear that if the BLM couldn’t do it more to the north, we could still live with it. So to say we approved it, that’s 100 percent correct,” Belote told the Journal .

Belote, who retired from the military last year, wrote the DOD’s July 2011 letter cited by Heinrich and the BLM.

“I left the Pentagon a year ago, so I’m no longer privy to classified decisions, but the DOD appears to have moved the goal post,” Belote said.

Still, even if the DOD was willing to move forward, the July 2011 letter never clarified whether the BLM had resolved fully all issues raised by the military. In the DOD’s May 2011 letter, for example, the military had suggested that some sections of the line might need to be buried.

White Sands declined to discuss specifics.

Nevertheless, Sherman McCorkle, a member of the New Mexico Military Base Planning Commission, said his understanding is that the Army has never shifted its position on pushing the route outside of the call-up zone.

“White Sands has consistently told us that the only route ever agreed to is the DOD preferred route north of the extension area,” he said.

Martinez said her administration fully supports the Army.

“The state of New Mexico stands in full support of the recommendations of the (DOD) technical working group: bury a portion of the line underground, or select the more northern route which will avoid a negative impact to the WSMR northern extension area,” the governor wrote in her letter to the BLM. “We agree that the cost to bury the line is less than the cost to the nation to replace or replicate critical testing activities.”

Rep. Steve Pearce, R—N.M., also supports the DOD’s stand on SunZia. But Sen. Tom Udall, D—N.M., has called for compromise by both sides.

Heinrich said differences can still be worked out if the Army and SunZia agree to meet in the middle.

“I believe if both sides want to get to ‘yes,’ they can, but they have to stay at the table to work through this,” he said.

SunZia spokesman Ian Calkins said project leaders are willing to implement other mitigation measures, such as adjusting the height of transmission structures and modifying tower spans.

White Sands Chief of Public Affairs Monte Marlin said discussions are still underway between the DOD and the Department of the Interior, the BLM’s parent agency.

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