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SunZia line to get green light

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will visit Albuquerque today to announce a final “record of decision” to allow the SunZia renewable energy transmission line to move forward in southern New Mexico and on land used by White Sands Missile Range, but some in New Mexico are still unhappy about it.

“The SunZia project will help unlock the abundant renewable energy resources in the Southwest, creating jobs and bringing reliable, sustainable power to a growing corner of our country,” Jewell said in an email to the Journal.

Rep. Steve Pearce, who represents the area, had a different view.

“It appears that, with one stroke of a pen, Sec. Jewell will permanently damage our national security,” he said in a prepared statement Friday. “Green-lighting the completion of SunZia along the chosen route is a reckless rush to judgement without thorough examination.”

A decision by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management has been pending since mid-2013, when the BLM released an environmental impact statement for the proposed 550-mile transmission line that would run from central New Mexico to Arizona. The project has been held up because, until last spring, the U.S. Department of Defense was concerned that a 45-mile stretch through White Sands Missile Range’s northern extension zone could interfere with military testing operations there.

Once built, the $1.2 billion project would transport renewable energy from wind farms on the Eastern Plains of New Mexico to western markets.

An agreement last May between the DOD and SunZia developers to bury sections of line in that area and take some other precautions have paved the way for the BLM to move forward, culminating in Jewell’s expected announcement today.

“I applaud all of our partners that collaborated to ensure that this infrastructure charts a course that makes sense for our economy, environment and national security.”

Nevertheless, critics of the project remain opposed to SunZia because of ongoing concern that the stretch running through White Sand’s northern extension area will impact testing there, despite burial of five miles of the line. That area is a “call-up zone” where ranchers and others are often evacuated for missile tests and exercises.

Pearce said green-lighting the project “will dramatically impair” White Sands’ mission.

In addition, Pearce said the transmission line could encroach on recently discovered ancient Indian burial sites, something he says the BLM and the Interior Department have ignored.

The BLM has been evaluating the SunZia route since 2009. And, last fall, it released an additional environmental assessment of the proposed sections to be buried in the northern extension zone that said placing those portions underground would have no significant impact on the area.

The state’s Military Base Planning Commission also remains opposed to SunZia’s incursion through the northern extension zone.

“The Commission has been and continues to be concerned that the route will be a negative encroachment on White Sands,” said commission member Sherman McCorkle. “But we’re not aware of any appellant process at this point, so it is what it is.”

The BLM’s additional environmental assessment, released on Nov. 25, was followed by a 30-day public comment period. That paved the way this month for a final record of decision, said Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw.

“Working closely with the Department of Defense, the BLM identified mitigation measures to protect military capabilities at the nearby White Sands Missile Range, including burial of three segments totaling approximately five miles in Socorro and Torrance counties,” Kershaw said in an email to the Journal. “The route of the transmission lines also avoids major population centers and cultural sites, and parallels existing power lines, highways and pipelines where possible.”

Kershaw said the DOD now supports the project. John Conger – acting deputy undersecretary of defense for energy, installations and environment – will accompany Jewell at today’s announcement in Albuquerque.

“We recognize that the project required significant modifications to accommodate our key requirements,” Conger said in an advance copy of his statement prepared for today. “We deeply appreciate our partners at the Department of Interior, and their commitment to ensure the DOD mitigation proposal was incorporated.”

The DOD and SunZia developers must still finalize a memorandum of understanding regarding other precautions agreed on last spring to protect White Sands’ operations, said Hanson Scott, director of the state Office of Military Base Planning. That includes not holding the military responsible for any future damages to the transmission line, not allowing construction and line maintenance to interfere with White Sands operations and potentially adjusting the height of lines above ground in the extension zone.

“They’re still working on the MOU, but the record of decision does indeed mean the project can move forward,” Scott said.