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SunZia offers to move project out of White Sands

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The SunZia Southwest Transmission Project is seeking an alternative route to move its massive clean energy line out of White Sands Missile Range and away from sensitive wildlife refuges in Socorro County.

The company asked the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s New Mexico office in March to consider amending the federal right of way it obtained in 2015, which allowed it to cut through White Sands’ “northern extension area” and cross the Rio Grande at Escondida, just north of Socorro.

SunZia developers say adjusting the route could win critical U.S. Department of Defense support for the project, and potentially reduce opposition from conservation groups and Socorro County officials who fear the line would cause irreparable harm to flocks of migrating birds and other wildlife, while damaging the area’s pristine landscapes.

Reopening the BLM’s National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, process represents a complete reversal from SunZia’s previous position during eight years of BLM deliberations from 2008 to 2015, when it refused to locate its line outside the White Sands extension zone, leading to years of conflict with the U.S. Department of Defense that culminated in a compromise agreement to bury portions of its transmission infrastructure.

Pursuing a new NEPA means pushing the 14-year-old project back another four years, to 2024. But it might help pave the way for final state-level approvals needed to move forward, which came to a screeching halt in September 2018 when the Public Regulation Commission rejected SunZia’s application for line-location permits, said SunZia New Mexico Executive Director John Ryan.

“We took a step back and evaluated internally what makes sense to solve some of the issues that weren’t resolved in the first NEPA process,” Ryan told the Journal last week. “We pretty much stopped all permitting when we didn’t get through the PRC, and we looked at ways to reduce opposition. It’s taken a lot of time to evaluate potential routes and identify alternatives.”

By moving the line outside the extension zone – a “call-up area” just north of White Sands where ranchers and others are often evacuated for testing exercises – SunZia could indeed win goodwill from the military to help champion the project, said Sherman McCorkle, former member of the New Mexico Military Base Planning Commission and a key player in the SunZia-DOD conflict from 2012-15.

“For national security, for White Sands and for New Mexico, this is extremely good news,” McCorkle told the Journal. “(SunZia) wants New Mexico citizens to be cheerleaders for the project, but they can’t be cheerleaders if it harms White Sands. They can be, however, if it’s out of the call-up area.”

SunZia’s nearly four-year dispute with the DOD involved the Pentagon’s top brass and Obama White House officials, who negotiated a compromise that committed to bury about five of the 45 miles of line that would pass through the call-up zone.

Despite that agreement, Ryan said, the military was never comfortable with the project transversing the call-up area, an issue that reemerged during PRC hearings in 2018. And with opposition from Socorro County and local communities mounting at the PRC, SunZia opted for a new approach.

“We visited with the DOD and White Sands to see if there was an alternative route they could support and advocate for,” Ryan said. “The new NEPA process will cost time and money, but with them now advocating for it, we feel it will be a better process, given all the permitting we have to go through.”

It’s unclear whether conservationists and local communities will support the new proposals for SunZia, which would transport wind energy 520 miles from central New Mexico to Arizona for export to Western markets. Exact locations for alternative routing won’t become public until the NEPA process begins in a couple of months.

In general, SunZia wants to move the project’s east-west segment – which runs from central eastern New Mexico near Corona in Lincoln County west to the Rio Grande – northward beyond the call-up zone and above the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Instead of crossing the river at Escondida, between Sevilleta and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to the south, SunZia would cross farther north near Bosque in Valencia County.

It would generally parallel the planned Western Spirit Transmission Line, a separate project that also includes a segment running east-west from Corona to Bosque.

SunZia’s new plans did persuade some Socorro County commissioners to withdraw opposition to the project. The commission voted 3-2 on May 12 to support the alternative route, retracting a unanimous 2018 resolution against SunZia.

And in a separate 3-2 vote, the commission approved an agreement for SunZia to pay county government $20,000 for each mile of line running through Socorro, potentially totaling $1.8 million for 90 miles, to support local health, safety and welfare projects.

But Commission Chairwoman Martha Salas and Commissioner Ray Martinez, who opposed the resolution and agreement, said moving the line north won’t limit its impact on wildlife, landscapes and land owners.

“It doesn’t change anything,” Salas told the Journal. “It doesn’t matter where you cross the river, it will impede migrating birds and impact the entire area.”

Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust Executive Director Cecilia Rosacker said the entire river zone from Bernalillo County to Bosque del Apache is a critical, continental migratory bridge for tens of thousands of birds that roost and feed along the waterway.

“It’s a major migratory corridor where the birds spend the winter,” Rosacker said. “Moving the line north doesn’t change our concerns, because it will still impact them.”

The Land Trust and other groups say the only solution is to bury the lines at the river.

“That would defuse a lot of opposition,” Salas said. “There’s no perfect solution, and some will still be concerned, but most of the opposition would go away if the line went underground.”

The NEPA process will consider below-ground alternatives.

“It will be up to the BLM,” Ryan said.

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