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SunZia asks PRC to reject examiner’s recommendation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The SunZia Southwest Transmission Project is appealing directly to the five-member state Public Regulation Commission to reject a hearing examiner’s recommendation to deny location permits to build two high-voltage lines across 320 miles of land in New Mexico.

The project, which would carry up to 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy from central New Mexico to Arizona, underwent a week of public hearings in June on SunZia’s request for right of way and location permits.

At the hearings, opponents testified against the project because of potentially far-reaching environmental impacts on rangeland and ranches, native vegetation, cultural sites and wetlands that support thousands of migratory birds along the central Rio Grande.

In response, hearing examiner Ashley Schannauer has recommended that commissioners approve SunZia’s request for 200-foot rights of way around each line but deny location permits until SunZia provides more information on precise placement of transmission infrastructure to better assess environmental impacts. Schannauer also wants SunZia to obtain other pending approvals from federal, state and local agencies to provide more detailed information on the project before re-applying for PRC location permits.

SunZia, however, filed a counter brief on Aug. 10 saying Schannauer wrongly relied on “lay opinions” that are “inadmissible” in his recommended decision regarding environmental impacts, rather than use expert testimony from SunZia witnesses and federal reviews of the project, such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s environmental impact statement that paved the way for BLM right-of-way approval for SunZia in 2015.

SunZia said pending permits from other agencies — including the State Land Office, the Army Corp. of Engineers and BLM approval to alter some rights of way — are not prerequisites for the PRC to approve its permits. Other projects, such as a 240-mile “Southland Transmission Project” in southern New Mexico, received PRC approval on condition that developers submit final permits from other agencies to the commission before beginning construction.

“There is no legal basis to treat SunZia differently,” SunZia said.

A SunZia proposal to retain a 1,000-foot corridor around its transmission lines for developers to alter locations slightly if necessary during construction also led to confusion during the hearings, SunZia said. Some intervenors mistakenly believe SunZia is seeking more than 200-foot rights of way around its lines, and the issue may have influenced Schannauer’s recommendation for more precise definition of line locations before approving permits.

To ease those concerns, SunZia now wants commissioners to only approve location permits for its first line, allowing it to re-apply for the second line at a later date.

Given the complexity of the issues, commissioners voted last week to postpone a final decision on SunZia until late September.

“We needed more time for discovery,” said Commissioner Valerie Espinoza. “It’s a complicated case…and we have a lot to consider and contemplate because this project will have long-term impacts.”

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