The Interior Department is set to issue final approval of a 515-mile-long multistate transmission line project that the Obama administration considers a top priority but that has been hounded by concerns it could compromise a New Mexico missile testing range and degrade a pristine Arizona river valley.
At issue is the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, which is projected to carry as much as 4,500 megawatts of what proponents say will be mostly wind-generated electricity from northeast New Mexico to an electric distribution point northwest of Tucson, Ariz.
The administration has said the power line is critical to developing wind and solar power in both New Mexico and Arizona.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is scheduled to announce tomorrow at a ceremony in Albuquerque, N.M., that the Bureau of Land Management has completed a yearslong environmental review of the project and that she is approving a record of decision authorizing the entire route of the line to be built.
That approval will allow the project proponent, Phoenix-based SunZia Transmission LLC, to bury up to 5 miles of the power line near the Army’s White Sands Missile Range. The Department of Defense has complained for years that the segment could interfere with the testing and training mission of the missile range.
But BLM last fall issued a preliminary environmental assessment that concluded burying the section of line near the missile range would not cause any damage or significant impacts that would warrant additional analysis (E&ENews PM, Nov. 25, 2014).
BLM’s New Mexico State Office is expected to sign off on a finding of no new significant impact for the portion of the line running near the White Sands Missile Range. Doing so relieves BLM from the need to conduct a more in-depth supplement to the final environmental impact statement that it released for the SunZia project in June 2013.
The section of line proposed to be buried wouldn’t touch any of White Sands’ 2.2 million acres of withdrawn federal lands, but it would cross a roughly 35-mile section of restricted airspace referred to as the missile range’s Northern Extension Area. The area is used in weapons testing and training exercises.
While the Pentagon has long expressed concerns that a high-tower power line across the area would interfere with the range’s mission, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agreed last year to drop DOD’s objections to the SunZia project if sections of the line near the range are buried.
An Interior Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the record of decision until after tomorrow’s announcement ceremony at Sandia National Laboratories. In addition to Jewell, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a big supporter of the power line project, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) are scheduled to attend.
Ian Calkins, a SunZia Transmission LLC spokesman, also said in an email that the company would not comment until after the formal announcement.
Interior said in a statement that the announcement will highlight “the Obama Administration’s commitment to job creation and modernizing America’s infrastructure while giving consumers more energy choices.”
But the decision to approve the project without a supplemental environmental impact statement has already sparked criticism from some New Mexico state and congressional leaders, including Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), whose district includes the missile range.
Pearce has said he supports the SunZia project but not the proposed route near the White Sands Missile Range.
Pearce issued a statement this afternoon saying the SunZia project “will dramatically impair” the missile range’s mission “to test defense systems critical to the protection of our nation and troops.”
“It appears that, with one stroke of a pen, Secretary Jewell will permanently damage our national security, and trample on our state’s Native American heritage,” Pearce said in a statement. “Green-lighting the completion of SunZia along the chosen route is a reckless rush to judgment without thorough examination.”
He also said that the chosen route of the power line “will encroach upon, damage, and potentially destroy ancient Pueblo sites,” though he was not specific on where these sites are located.
Pearce also blasted Heinrich and Luján, saying he is “extremely surprised” the two elected leaders “would agree with the destruction of sites fundamental to New Mexico’s history and heritage. Regardless of our different views on national security and the role of the military, I am taken aback by their support for crony corporate welfare at the expense of our culture.”
But BLM has expressed confidence that burying the line would not cause harm and would alleviate concerns about the project interfering with the White Sands Missile Range.
Burying the section is part of a mitigation package Hagel sent to Jewell in May 2014 that includes having the project proponents agree to “micro-siting” conditions, such as lowering high-tower lines near the range.
SunZia Transmission LLC has agreed to all of Hagel’s mitigation requests.
Other areas of concern
The project’s westernmost route in Arizona has also sparked debate among elected leaders, residents and conservation groups.
The concern is a section proposed to run through a pristine valley renowned for its biological diversity. It has drawn the ire of Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who has said he is worried about the impact of running the line through the San Pedro River Valley in southern Arizona.
The valley is an important layover for more than 4 million migratory birds each year and provides habitat for deer, bobcats and mountain lions. What’s more, the San Pedro River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, and some fear the 500-kilovolt high-tower transmission lines, if not properly sited, could interrupt that flow.
BLM officials say they have made every attempt to route the transmission line parallel to existing utility infrastructure and to use existing roads to minimize disturbance and reduce impacts to sensitive resources. About 273 miles of the preferred route would run within designated utility corridors, with about 185 miles of the line running on BLM lands in New Mexico and Arizona.
But the proposed route crosses the valley about 10 miles north of Benson, Ariz., and follows the west side of the San Pedro River for more than 45 miles.
Defenders of Wildlife, the Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others, have expressed concerns about the route. So has the Cascabel Working Group, a grass-roots organization of residents that works to protect the lower and middle San Pedro River Valley and to educate the community about the valley’s cultural and archaeological significance.
Norm “Mick” Meader, the Benson, Ariz.-based Cascabel Working Group’s chairman, has openly questioned the need for the line and the claims that it will spark wind and solar development in Arizona and New Mexico.
So has Peter Else, chairman of Friends of the Aravaipa Region, a network of conservation activists working to protect wildlife habitat in the lower San Pedro River watershed.
“Contrary to popular belief, the proposed SunZia project is a merchant transmission line, not a renewable energy project,” Else wrote last month in a letter to BLM. “So far, the BLM has allowed the applicant to make unsupported renewable energy development claims.”
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