Although usually in synchronization with each other, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce and the Lincoln County Commission appear to be taking different positions on the proposed northern route of the $1.2 billion SunZia Transmission line, which will service solar and wind farms, some in Lincoln County.
The commission two months ago backed the ranchers and their right to use their land for the transmission line and for the development of wind farms. Pearce, a Republican from New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District that includes Lincoln County, contends the military mission of White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base and Fort Bliss Army Base should come first and with a slight adjustment, both sides could achieve their goals.
“We’ve always been supportive of the renewables (energy development)and SunZia, but we’ve also told them from day one, they came to me before I ever got sworn in, so sometime in November or December after the election in 2010, and I said, ‘Whatever route you have here, it is very close to the restricted area.'”
The representatives insisted the route fell outside the restricted area, he said.
“They began to parse words. If you look at aerial chart of the restricted area, it’s the Bravo piece that is central, but in the south, there are areas that are sometimes restricted,” Pearce said during a stop in Ruidoso as part
of his summer break from Congress.
“I said, ‘Wait, you guys, I’ve flown here for 30 to 35 years. I know some times I can go across here or here, and sometimes I can’t. That’s equally restricted, it just is not totally restricted. Your high line wires are going to be up everyday, so there are some days they will be a problem and some days not.'”
In June 2013, officials with the Bureau of Land Management issued a final environmental impact statement with the preferred route for the transmission line traveling through the northern boundary of the missile range. The Defense Department with bureau involvement created a technical working group to analyze potential conflicts and impacts. After months of work, the group concluded the proposed route would create a serious national security risk, Pearce said.
The bureau is scheduled to issue a decision in September on SunZia’s application to use rights of ways on federal land for the line.
A SunZia spokesman has contended that the route doesn’t cross any of the missile range’s 2.2 million acres and that requiring the route to be altered would kill the project financially, because another environmental study would have to be undertaken.
Pearce said he was adamant that if the route ever touched the restricted area, he would oppose it.
“They cut across the corner and the missile launches are from that corner to this corner, so they can get the maximum distance and it cuts right through that launch area and the military said this is not going to work,” the congressman said. “So they then went to the White House and tried to get White House approval and then the Interior Department weighed in with (the Bureau of Land Management).”
He explained that jurisdictions are split in this issue with the bureau owning the ground and Defense Department everything above to infinity. In those cases, the defense mission always dominates, Pearce said.
“We could lose a billion dollars, 30 percent of our missions are compromised by that one little corner,” he said. “In this period of sequestration, I do not want to be the one trying to defend that we voluntarily allowed 30 percent of the military missions to dissipate. That’s the reason I have been rock solid against them.
“I like them. I like the project. I do not like the route. I just think they are gong to wish they had not spent $23 million on an (Environmental Impact Statement) that did what I said please don’t do.”
The mayor of the city of Alamogordo was rebuffed by Lincoln County commissioners when she asked them for their backing of the military mission over the route. Commissioners stuck with land owners in the northern part of the county, who hope to benefit from wind farming and the transmission line.
“My position is you have a 515-mile line and another five miles does not endanger, it is not the go or no go of this project,” Pearce said. Some of the landowners were not fully informed about the implications of the route, he said. “I tell them to get the line outside of there,” he said. “They were told this was not restricted air space, so that basically is a lie they have been told. When I call and talk to them personally and explain that sometimes it is restricted and sometimes not, but you can’t take the lines down the day of a launch, they said they never knew and that it never was fully explained to them.”
He’s sympathetic with ranchers who hope to develop wind farms on their land, Pearce said. “I’m supportive of that if the line is taken out of the restricted areas,” he said.
“The Air Force says they have to go around obstacles in war zones and they don’t mind when they are going out for low-level mission, but I’ve landed a (Lockheed) C130 (Hercules) on a 2,500-foot strip and last thing I want to do is think about a wind turbine a quarter mile away. You’ve got dust, you sometimes are coming in on hard weather and just have the basics of navigation aids on these little strips and over here a quarter mile away a wind tower is sitting there.”
At higher elevations the towers aren’t a problem, Pearce said, but when landing or flying closer to the ground with a lot of things going one, sometimes cross checking 25 things in a cockpit, a pilot doesn’t need something sticking up 300 feet in the air.