Gov. Susana Martinez is appealing directly to President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to develop an alternative plan for the proposed SunZia transmission line to avoid impacting White Sands Missile Range.
SunZia, which would transport renewable energy from central New Mexico to Arizona, has generated intense debate since last year because the U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposes to route a 45-mile stretch of it through the missile range’s northern extension area. That’s a “call-up zone” where ranchers and others are often evacuated for missile tests and exercises.
Martinez wants the Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM, to either push the line farther north outside the extension area or bury sections of it.
“I am seriously concerned that the planned route for the project poses an unacceptable national security risk,” Martinez said in an April 22 letter to the president. “I urgently request your support in directing the DOI to develop a plan for the SunZia project which avoids negatively impacting the mission performance of WSMR.”
Martinez told Obama that the state “fully supports” national efforts to develop alternative energy. “However, the development of renewable energy projects should not negatively impact military missions at any of our installations,” she wrote in the letter obtained by the Journal.
In September, then-White Sands Commander Brig. Gen. Gwen Bingham told the Journal that there was no question the proposed siting of the SunZia line across the northern extension of the huge military testing site would impair national defense missions. The DOD was seeking a “win-win solution” on the line, but “it’s going to have a negative impact on our mission.”
In a separate letter this month to Jewell and DOD Secretary Chuck Hagel, Martinez warned that the currently proposed route “poses an unacceptable negative impact to critical test and evaluation missions.” She implored Jewell to find another route or require the project proponents to bury sections of the line.
For now, SunZia remains stalled until the White House, DOI and DOD work out their differences, said Dave Goodman, planning and environmental coordinator for the BLM in New Mexico.
“The issue has to move to a higher level, back to our Washington, D.C., office and to the White House Council of Environmental Quality,” Goodman told the Journal on Monday. “The White House is now directly involved through that office. We’re in a holding pattern waiting for directions on how to move forward.”
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., weighed in on the other side of the debate, urging DOD to compromise.
“I strongly suggest that the Department of Defense work collaboratively with the Department of the Interior immediately to find and deploy the solution that comports with national security needs and provides for the rapid construction of SunZia,” Reid said in a March 25 letter to Jewell and Hagel.
The senator’s specific interests in the project were unclear, although the first paragraphs of his letter outlined his strong support of the Rapid Response Team for Transmission that was created to help solve permitting and other problems with planned renewable energy projects.
SunZia project manager Tom Wray has said any alternative route could kill the $1.2 billion project because it would necessitate another environmental study that could take years to complete.
It was Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who sent a letter to Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall in September, requesting that the DOD commission MIT Lincoln Laboratory to assess the project’s impacts and potential mitigation measures.
The study, which has been completed but not declassified yet, shows the DOD preferred route or buried power lines are needed to mitigate impacts on White Sands, according to U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M.
Both New Mexico Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Heinrich have suggested there remains another solution as long as the military, BLM and SunZia officials continue to work together.