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Land commissioner delays SunZia transmission line for further review

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn on Wednesday temporarily stalled the proposed SunZia transmission line project that would create jobs and deliver solar and wind power from New Mexico and Arizona facilities to locations across the Southwest.

Dunn, who took office in January, said the 60-day suspension will give him time to review the $2 billion project, which would cross 89 miles of state trust land in Southern New Mexico. The privately funded venture involves installing two major transmission lines across 515 miles of federal, state and private land in the two states.

“The suspension will allow our office time to ensure all necessary agreements are in place to protect state trust land and ensure state beneficiaries are receiving fair consideration by SunZia,” Dunn in a news release.

Public schools, universities and other state facilities receive revenues from leases, royalties and rents on state trust lands.

SunZia has not yet filed an application for the transmission line with the State Land Office, said Ian Calkins, a spokesman for the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project. “It’s unclear exactly what this means in scheduling and time frames, but we will work directly with the State Land Office and share information to keep the process moving forward,” Calkins said.

Dunn’s decision to halt the SunZia process came after he said he wasn’t invited to an event Saturday in Albuquerque where Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced federal approval of the transmission project. Dunn called the lack of an invitation “one example that the State Land Office and state trust land beneficiaries have not yet had a voice.”

Department of the Interior officials said email invitations to the event, including one to Dunn, were sent at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21.
Dunn said he never received it, but that if an email was sent, “we question whether a project of this magnitude, that affects a great deal of state trust lands … would have merited an invitation more significant than an email.”

The federal Bureau of Land Management worked with a dozen other agencies, including the New Mexico State Land Office, the military, counties and communities for the last six years on an environmental assessment of the project.

Adrian Garcia, the SunZia project lead for BLM since 2009, said the State Land Office was consulted and had basically agreed to the route. “But when new people are elected, there is no obligation for them to approve what the previous administration did,” he said.

Then U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave the project a green light in May after SunZia officials agreed to bury a five-mile portion of the transmission line across a corner of White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

SunZia estimates the project would provide 6,000 construction jobs for four years. SunZia sponsors – including Shell WindEnergy, Tri-State Generation, and Southwestern Power Group – hope to begin construction by 2018.

Dunn scheduled two meetings for stakeholders and county officials – March 10 in Deming and March 11 in Soccorro.

SunZia proposed route

Total miles in New Mexico and Arizona: 515

Miles in New Mexico: 371

Miles across federal lands in New Mexico: 135

Miles across state trust lands: 89

Miles across private lands: 93

Cost: Estimated $2 billion in private funds