TUCSON – SunZia received formal federal approval last week for its proposed extra-high voltage transmission project that will span about 500 miles between Arizona and New Mexico.
The project includes up to two new 500kV transmission lines and five electrical substations that will provide up to 3,000 megawatts of new capacity, according to SunZia Spokesman Ian Calkins.
Construction is scheduled to begin in 2016, with full operation planned by 2020.
In a statement issued Jan. 24, Calkins announced that SunZia had received a “record of decision” (ROD) that same day from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Calkins explained that receiving the ROD concluded the federal permitting effort which began officially in May 2009, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
SunZia Project Manager Tom Wray said, “We are excited to reach this milestone and to be one major step closer to unleashing the renewable energy potential of the southwest and creating jobs.”
He explained that the “final hurdle” in the process was reaching an agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense “to take measures to preserve and protect the current and future missions of the White Sands Missile Range,” which he called “a huge accomplishment in itself.”
Wray went on to say that none of it would have been possible “without the exhaustive and thorough environmental review and analysis conducted by BLM.”
In Nov. 2014, the BLM released its review of the compromise in which three segments – totaling five miles of the project in Socorro and Torrance Counties – would be buried to “mitigate impacts to military operations” at White Sands.
Calkins said that development efforts will now turn towards seeking state and local siting approvals in both Arizona and New Mexico.
Formed by Middle San Pedro Valley landowners concerned about the project, the Cascabel Working Group released a statement Jan. 26, together with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter.
In it, Co-Chairman Norm “Mick” Meader said the high-voltage transmission line would cut north along the San Pedro River, “destroying previously untouched wildlife habitat and disrupting primary wildlife mitigation corridors between the Galiuro and Santa Catalina/Rincon Mountains.”
He went on to say that the SunZia project would create “one of the largest new utility corridors in the western U.S., and cause significant harm in some of the most important wildlife areas in Arizona.”
Meader said that subsequent damage to the lower San Pedro Valley cannot be justified, “given the questionable and unproved claims that this project is needed to promote renewable energy resources.”
The harm the project would cause “is entirely unnecessary given that the project is not needed to meet any renewable energy needs in Arizona or California and would squander both financial and environmental resources if built,” Meader said.
Both states have demonstrated that they can “easily meet present and future renewable energy needs with their own resources,” he said.
“Building this project will not increase the use of renewable energy, merely rearrange which resources are developed, if even that.”
Meader said the SunZia route “would impact 40 years of conservation efforts by federal and state government agencies, corporations, and conservation organizations, which have spent more than $40 million to protect more than 200,000 acres of valley lands.”
“The San Pedro River is the last undammed river in the Desert Southwest, and the principal migration corridor for birds, plus it hosts the greatest mammal diversity in North America,” he said.
“The alternative SunZia route that the BLM considered – the one preferred by SunZia proponents – threads its way between the Aravaipa Canyon, Galiuro Mountains, and Santa Teresa Wilderness Areas and would fragment the largest block of intact habitat in Arizona outside the Grand Canyon region.”
Sierra Club Chapter Director Sandy Bahr deemed “unacceptable” the siting of the proposed project “in some of Arizona’s most sensitive and unfragmented lands.”
She said that the Sierra Club strongly opposes the SunZia project “due to the known significant negative impacts this project would have on the San Pedro Valley and the important habitat it provides, the impacts on cultural resources, and the fact that the project is just as likely to carry fossil-fueled electricity as renewables.”
The BLM’s use of “an idealized and untenable energy development scenario to assess cumulative environmental impacts negates much of the analysis for the project,” Meader said.
He said that the BLM “essentially dismissed public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS); Resource Management Plan Amendments, and Environmental Assessments.”
Meader called such dismissals inconsistent with NEPA’s requirements “for a full analysis of reasonable alternatives, an assessment of the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts; and the intent of the law to create the clearest possible picture of the project.”
Chairman Peter Else, with the Friends of the Aravaipa Region, said, “We strongly object to sacrificing high-quality environmental values to such an inadequate and corrupted process and will work to correct this however we can.”
“We cannot permit such an overt disregard for the intent of the law,” said Else, who is the leader of the group of lower San Pedro landowners and conservationists.
Meader told the Range News, “We will be trying to challenge the EIS, however difficult that will be.”
He said the Cascabel Working Group does not see how the project could be financed and built, as California utilities already have “all the energy they need” to meet the state’s current “Renewable Portfolio Standard,” which Meader explained is “how much renewable energy they are required to have in place by 2020.”
“We’ll be submitting arguments to the Arizona Corporation Commission demonstrating the lack of need for the project, although we know the Commission is still likely to approve it,” Meader told the Range News.
“Economics is our biggest ally at the moment,” noting possible difficulties in financing the project.
In his Jan. 24 statement, Calkins said that SunZia had reached several milestones during its federal permitting process, including White House designation “as one of only seven transmission projects in the country to receive accelerated permitting treatment; formal sponsorship by the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority; and initial agreement with Boston-based First Wind Energy to receive ‘anchor tenant’ status.”
“Once all local, state, and federal permits have been obtained, final design and engineering, acquisition of rights-of-way, and construction are scheduled to begin in 2016, with operation scheduled by 2020,” he said.
On May 29, 2009, the BLM first published a notice in the Federal Register, marking the formal beginning of the federal permitting process to consider the project’s right-of-way application.
In May 2012, Sun Zia announced that the BLM had issued the Draft EIS for its proposed project.
Its publication triggered a 90-day public review period, during which the BLM accepted comments and held public meetings.
“This milestone achievement comes after three years of environmental analysis and represents a major step toward the BLM issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement (Final EIS) under the NEPA,” Calkins said at the time.
In June 2013, the BLM issued the Final EIS, providing “a comprehensive analysis of potential environmental impacts that could result from project development.”