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Editorial: White Sands’ mission trumps private interests

This shouldn’t be that hard of a decision.

The U.S. Department of Defense says a proposed $1 billion high-voltage transmission project would be a threat to national security — and could jeopardize New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range.

However, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is favoring a route that does just that.

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The SunZia line is a worthy renewable energy project, but as proposed it will cross 45 miles over the range’s Northern Extension, an area in private, federal and state government ownership that the range uses on a contract call-up basis for various operations. What is special, and invaluable, about the missile range is that it is the only U.S. site, except for the White House, that has ground-to-infinity air space and where certain tests can be performed. The range has a workforce of about 9,300 and an estimated annual economic impact of $834 million.

Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall, in a March 19 letter to Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes, wrote that if built as planned, the line would compromise missile range operations and present “an unacceptable risk to national security.”

White Sands’ air space and the national investment simply cannot be short-circuited — especially not by private investors wanting to bank a lot of green on a bureaucratic-backed route for a green energy project.

What’s fueling this is a five-company partnership that in 2008 proposed a 500-mile transmission system linking Lincoln County with Pinal County in southeastern Arizona to deliver renewable energy from wind and solar farms in New Mexico to other Western states. Supporters say it would create hundreds of construction jobs. BLM’s parent agency, the Department of Interior, is high on renewable energy and backs the SunZia project.

But there is an alternative, albeit one that may need some tweaking, that doesn’t put New Mexico’s and the nation’s unique airspace at risk. The Department of Defense prefers a route that skirts the Northern Extension and avoids the call-up area. However, that route also skirts the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, which could lose its refuge status if the line crossed over it, and passes close to a wilderness study area and Forest Service land with protected owls.

After about five years of planning, $37 million in private investment, and close work with the BLM, DOD and White Sands, SunZia understandably is anxious to go with the range option, and BLM officials, fearing the project could be unplugged if a decision isn’t made soon, appear ready to power it up. The BLM is expected to make a decision in June, which has to be signed off on by the Interior Department, although it can be appealed to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.

The New Mexico Military Base Planning Commission, which advises the governor on military bases in the state, supports the Department of Defense option and says crossing White Sands airspace could put the range at risk in the next Base Realignment and Closure round in 2015.

“Once missions leave, they are not going to come back,” commission member Sherman McCorkle says.

The Defense Department has asked the Environmental Impact Statement process be reopened. It should be, and a compromise that doesn’t contain a poison pill putting a New Mexico and national asset in jeopardy should be reached. New Mexico’s Congressional delegation should support this option. It’s not their job — nor that of the BLM — to make money for a private renewable energy consortium. Last week N.M. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both Democrats, joined by Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn, took a bold step by introducing a bill to add buffer zones for White Sands Missile Range and Fort Bliss to protect their national security missions.

Often money isn’t the only cost in a project, and the cheapest route isn’t always best. Especially with the national security and economic implications in play here.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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