SunZia, the company proposing a $1.2 billion power transmission system that could create 18,000 construction jobs in New Mexico, says it will scotch the project if its preferred route is rejected by the federal government.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is to decide in September whether to approve the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project’s application for right of way on federal lands and other amendments for property use. The Department of Defense and others are concerned the route preferred by BLM and SunZia could threaten the training mission at White Sands Missile Range. Those critics favor a more northerly route around WSMR.
Under the BLM’s final environmental impact statement, SunZia’s high-voltage transmission system would start in Lincoln County, N.M., and traverse much of the state. The project would cover 515 miles in all, ending in Pinal County in southeastern Arizona.
The company says its lines would transport solar and wind power, capitalizing on New Mexico’s abundant natural resources to provide electricity to Western population centers.
In Arizona, conservation groups have challenged SunZia’s jobs forecast and whether the transmission lines would cause environmental harm to the San Pedro River Valley. But the greater storm is in New Mexico, where military and political opposition continues
against SunZia’s preferred route.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, the Department of Defense and the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce are among those against the preferred route. Pearce said SunZia would impinge on training missions at White Sands Missile Range and weaken national defense.
BLM also selected a “preferred alternative” that includes a modification to the route near White Sands. It is 30 miles north of the missile range and does not cross any of the White Sands’ 2.2 million acres of federal property.
But Tom Wray, the SunZia project manager, said any alternate route is death for the power project at this stage.
Another path for transmission lines and substations would necessitate another environmental impact study that would take years to complete. Wray said such a delay would kill the project for financial reasons.
“It’s do or die. We would miss the market window because New Mexico is competing with Wyoming” as an alternative energy supplier, Wray said in an interview.
Just as important, he said, SunZia’s route would not harm White Sands or any other military installation.
He pointed to two letters from the Department of Defense in 2011 in which it accepted the route, though White Sands never did.
Even so, Wray said, White Sands’ own evidence suggests that the route would not create a conflict with military training.
“White Sands did its own EIS (environmental impact statement). It found no impact,” he said.
With jobs to be gained in parts of New Mexico eager for fresh opportunities, SunZia has plenty of supporters, especially local governments that have approved resolutions backing the project.
They include Luna, Hidalgo, Grant, Sierra, Torrance and Lincoln counties and the city of Deming, all of which stand to gain economically from construction of power lines and renewable energy projects.
Potential job losses, in addition to military readiness and stability, are reasons Pearce is opposing SunZia’s preferred route.
A combat pilot in Vietnam, Pearce said SunZia’s route could undermine training missions at White Sands and leave the installation vulnerable to cutbacks during a time when the federal government is under pressure to reduce costs and perhaps military bases.
SunZia’s route would cut through a corner of the White Sands “call-up area,” a plan Pearce said he objected to during his first meeting with the company’s executives in November 2010, after his re-election to Congress.
“… I told them then this call-up area is of great concern,” said Pearce, R-Hobbs.
He said he would support SunZia’s project if it were outside that zone. Pearce said last week that his position had not changed since that first meeting almost three years ago because White Sands’ missions have to be protected.
Now the DOD shares his concerns. It says the SunZia line, some 45 miles over the missile range’s Northern Extension, could interfere with missions and low-flying military aircraft.
A spokeswoman for White Sands said Brig. Gen. Gwen Bingham, commander of the missile range, was unavailable last week to answer questions about SunZia.
Like Pearce, Bingham has written of and discussed the financial power of White Sands, saying it employs more than 9,000 people and pours $2.3 million a day into the regional economy.
Pearce is not the only member of Congress worried about SunZia upsetting military operations. Opposition, in fact, is bipartisan when it comes to House members with districts in southern New Mexico and West Texas.
Two freshman Democratic congressmen who represent the El Paso area, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Gallego, wrote the BLM and Interior Department this month to outline their objections to SunZia’s route. They raised concerns similar to Pearce’s.
“This proposed project would negatively impact military training” at White Sands, they said. “Furthermore, transmission lines crossing the northern extension would also have detrimental impacts to Fort Bliss and Holloman Air Force Base, which are both adjacent to WSMR.”
Wray said those criticisms amounted to inaccurate speculation.
“SunZia will have no impact on military operations. We’re too far from them to be a factor,” he said.
More opposition to the company’s route came from Richard Dayoub, president and CEO of the greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce.
In a letter sent in June to the secretary of defense, Dayoub said the environmental study had been completed but concerns about SunZia’s route lingered.
“The EIS process has been under way for several years, and we understand the final draft document has been released. However, Army representatives have consistently stated that the BLM proposed route will significantly impact WSMR’s ability to support the testing of vital defense systems,” Dayoub wrote.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said he had no such concerns about the transmission project hurting military operations, now or in the future.
To help allay others’ fears, Heinrich, New Mexico’s other Democratic senator, Tom Udall, and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn have introduced a bill to add buffer zones around White Sands and Fort Bliss, further insulating their missions.
Heinrich said he had reviewed all the public and classified information about the SunZia project and was convinced that it would benefit New Mexico.
Any disputes over the route can be worked out with compromise, he said.
“There is nothing that is inherently irreconcilable,” he said in a phone interview from Washington.
Heinrich said he believed SunZia would receive BLM approval this year, giving the state’s economy an enormous boost without negatively affecting White Sands.
“The transmission project is an absolute necessity. We can work through the details in terms of routing,” he said.
When the final environmental impact statement was released in June, the BLM state director said a newly formed technical group would look at burying lines.
Wray has different compromises in mind to defuse military concerns. Like Heinrich, he said he was confident that SunZia could mitigate any potential problems with White Sands.
Wray said SunZia stood ready to lessen concerns about low-flying aircraft being threatened by transmission towers. He said SunZia was willing to reduce the size of its towers from 130 or 135 feet to 90 feet, even though this would mean greater expense because more towers per mile would be needed.
The possibility of conflicts in the call-up area where projectiles could be launched was so remote that it should never be a problem, Wray said. SunZia is willing nonetheless to discuss a mutual indemnity agreement with White Sands as a safeguard, he said.
And SunZia’s lines would meet industry standards to negate any electromagnetic interference with White Sands’ operations, Wray said.
In Wray’s view, disagreements were bound to occur.
“With a project involving two states, 14 counties and 515 miles, there are bound to be some concerns,” he said.
Wray, a former New Mexico state senator now living in Arizona, said both states had much to gain if SunZia can proceed with the project.
SunZia is using an economic study by New Mexico State University and the University of Arizona to bolster its case for a favorable decision from the BLM.
In addition to construction jobs lasting two to four years, New Mexico would land 270 full-time jobs, a $16 million annual payroll and $14 million in yearly property taxes, according to the universities’ analysis.
The study concluded that SunZia would create almost 43,000 construction jobs in the two states.
“No one likes big transmission lines, but we need them if we’re going to get New Mexico in a position to deliver wind and solar power,” Wray said.
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima, talking about SunZia last week, sounded as optimistic as Heinrich.
“The military is important. When they talk, it’s like E.F. Hutton, you have to listen,” Miyagishima said.
“But overall, this project is good for southern New Mexico.”
Heinrich said that, after working with SunZia executives for months, he has concluded that the project is not a threat to the military. Rather, it is an opportunity of limitless potential for New Mexico and the West, he said.
“If both sides want to get to ‘yes,’ they will,” Heinrich said.
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