U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., told reporters in a telephone conference call Tuesday that the study, conducted by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, validates key U.S. Department of Defense concerns that the proposed 500-mile transmission project could interfere with missile tests.
The line, as currently planned, includes a 45-mile stretch through White Sands’ northern extension area, a “call-up zone” just north of the missile range where ranchers and others are often evacuated for testing and exercises.
Pearce said the MIT study confirmed the potential for “vertical obstruction” of missile tests because of the height of the proposed transmission lines. It also cited the possibility of debris raining down on the lines if a missile fails during testing and it outlined the potential for electromagnetic interference from transmission infrastructure.
In response, Pearce called on SunZia to comply with DOD requests that it either bury portions of the line in the call-up zone or move it entirely north of the extension area.
“I’m calling on SunZia to mitigate these problems,” he said. “This study was done for the benefit of SunZia and it validated the DOD’s position. It’s not the answer SunZia wanted, but they need to accept it.”
A lot is at stake. White Sands has said that if the project is approved as is, it could reduce testing operations at the missile range by up to 30 percent, potentially threatening national security. That also could mean layoffs at White Sands, which employs thousands and has an estimated $834 million annual economic impact in New Mexico.
On the other hand, the SunZia project, which would carry renewable energy from solar and wind projects in eastern and central New Mexico to Western markets, will generate $1.2 billion in private investment.
But SunZia project manager Tom Wray said Pearce is apparently misinterpreting some MIT study conclusions.
Pearce based his statements on a classified briefing that he and other government officials received this week from the DOD and MIT. The report has not yet been publicly released and, beyond general statements about the three DOD concerns addressed by MIT, Pearce provided few details on the study’s findings.
Wray, who attended a nonclassified briefing, offered a broader analysis.
“I just came from a briefing today by the DOD and MIT,” Wray told the Journal . “The three items Pearce talked about were studied, but the conclusions I heard were very different than what he said.”
In particular, MIT tests showed that, although electromagnetic interference could affect certain missile guidance systems, no problems would occur if missiles remain at least 200 feet from lines.
“The right of way around lines is 200 feet and the electromagnetic strength at the edge of that right of way is almost negligible,” Wray said. “So the study didn’t conclude that that’s a problem.”
As for debris from rockets, the report did say that, in some circumstances, missile scrap could fall on transmission infrastructure. But it also said those risks could be easily mitigated through various test precautions, such as not shooting missiles within 50 feet of transmission lines, Wray said. In addition, SunZia has said it would agree to hold White Sands harmless in case of an accident.
Finally, regarding vertical obstruction of low-flying missiles, the study did find potential problems for a new, low-altitude cruise missile test being developed for the Navy. Basically, the DOD wants to avoid having to skip over transmission lines when conducting those missions.
But Wray said SunZia is willing to work on mitigation measures to address that problem, such as lowering the height of lines and possibly burying some portions of cable.
“We do need to work on the vertical obstruction issue a bit more with the DOD,” Wray said. “If they can actually show good reason for not wanting any new structure out there, we would consider line burial – although not the full 45 miles – along with other things like reducing tower height.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who originally requested that the DOD commission the MIT review last fall, agreed with SunZia that the study indicates that mitigation measures are possible, although he declined to elaborate given the classified nature of the briefing he attended.
“We have concluded that there are pragmatic solutions to allow SunZia and White Sands Missile Range to mutually exist,” Heinrich said in a statement. “The administration should issue the record of decision … SunZia should be built.”
It’s unclear what impact the study will have on the Bureau of Land Management, which delayed a record of decision on the SunZia project environmental impact statement pending the MIT review. The impact statement as currently written would authorize construction of the 45-mile stretch through White Sands’ extension area.
“The report has been delivered to our Washington office,” BLM New Mexico spokeswoman Donna Hummel told the Journal . “The issue is being managed at very high levels now. Until it drops back down to our level, we can’t make any comments.”