Senator seeks decision on 515-mile power line that could create 43,000 construction jobs in NM and Arizona
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich went to bat Monday for the proposed 515-mile SunZia energy transmission line that would traverse much of New Mexico, including a section that is controversial because it is part of air space for White Sands Missile Range.
In a letter to Sally Jewel, cabinet secretary of the Department of the Interior, Heinrich said if the SunZia project were scuttled “it will significantly damage New Mexico’s prospects for large-scale renewable energy development.”
Heinrich, right, D-N.M., said the SunZia proposal had been delayed long enough, and that the federal government’s credibility was on the line in resolving property use involving military installations and alternative energy suppliers.
“... Another delay on this project threatens the credibility of the Department of Defense Siting Clearinghouse process. SunZia was selected as an early ‘fast track’ project for the nine-agency Rapid Response Team for Transmission and was intended to act as an example of how DOD and the Department of the Interior could work together to resolve energy siting conflicts quickly and collaboratively,” Heinrich wrote.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s preferred route follows the criteria of the Clearinghouse’s letter of approval, Heinrich said.
If an environmental study were reopened on SunZia, “other federal agencies and project sponsors will not be able to rely on the Clearinghouse in their own siting processes, rendering it irrelevant,” Heinrich said.
Tom Wray, project manager of SunZia, said the company would kill the $1.2 billion transmission line if its preferred route is not accepted by the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior.
Wray, a former New Mexico state senator, said SunZia would have no choice because a new environmental review process for a revised route would take years, closing the financial window for the project to be successful.
Under the BLM’s final environmental impact statement, SunZia’s high-voltage transmission system would start in Lincoln County, N.M., and end in Pinal County in southeastern Arizona. The company lines would transport solar and wind power, capitalizing on New Mexico’s abundant natural resources to provide electricity to Western population centers.
SunZia, relying on economic studies by New Mexico State University and University of Arizona, says its transmission system would create 43,000 construction jobs in the two states, 18,000 in New Mexico.
But the project has generated opposition, notably from White Sands Missile Range and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-Hobbs.
Pearce said the route SunZia wants is a threat to national security because it could impinge on White Sands’ training missions.
A combat pilot in Vietnam, Pearce earlier this month repeated his objections to the route. He did this after John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary of defense, wrote a letter opposing the preferred route of SunZia.
“As Mr. Conger highlights in his letter, the route as proposed would impede the military’s ability to complete testing that cannot be done anywhere else in the United States. The result would cause a devastating impact on national security,” Pearce said.
Two West Texas congressmen, freshmen Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Pete Gallego, also have publicly opposed SunZia’s preferred route.
Brig. Gen. Gwen Bingham, right, commander of White Sands Missile Range, said in an interview this summer that above-ground transmission lines in a 35-mile stretch would interfere with training missions.
But, Bingham said, she hoped a compromise could be reached.
“I absolutely believe there is still a win-win opportunity,” she said.
Wray, of SunZia, said expected BLM to make a decision on the route on Sept. 17.
Heinrich, in an interview weeks before to the release of his letter, said he believed the routing details could be worked out to enable SunZia to proceed with construction.
UDALL'S IDEA -- GET THE PRESIDENT INVOLVED
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall says the dispute in New Mexico over SunZia should be settled on high -- by the president.
Udall, D-N.M., suggested resolving the gridlock this way, according to his spokeswoman, Jen Talhelm:
"Senator Udall believes that New Mexico’s unimpeded airspace and its abundant sun and wind are critically important resources that should be maximized to create jobs and economic opportunities for the state. At the end of the day, this is a conflict between two divisions of the administration, and Senator Udall believes the White House should step in and resolve the issue in a way that fully protects the important missions of WSMR and still allows for renewable energy transmission, which is essential for New Mexico to compete with its surrounding states in clean energy production. He has called on the administration to find a workable solution as soon as possible."FULL TEXT OF SEN. HEINRICH’S LETTER
August 19, 2013
Hon. Sally Jewell
Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20240
Dear Secretary Jewell:
Thank you for your work to promote clean energy development and address the serious threat of climate change to our nation. Our state of New Mexico has a tremendous potential for renewable energy production and New Mexicans are eager to be part of the solution in increasing our energy independence and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions while creating much-needed jobs.
A transmission project critical to New Mexico’s renewable energy development may be facing another delay, potentially leading the project to be halted altogether. The SunZia transmission line will help deliver wind and solar energy generated in New Mexico to the major western energy demand centers. Without access to those markets, New Mexico’s renewable energy resources will remain isolated and largely untapped.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) completed its draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project on May 29, 2012, and published the final EIS on June 14, 2013. Among many others, the Department of Defense (DoD) and White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) are cooperating agencies.
In a May 2011 letter, the DoD indicated its approval of the BLM’s preferred route for the transmission line under the condition that a portion of the route was shifted to the north—a shift which is reflected in BLM’s final preferred route. In fact, this route was originally suggested by WSMR in a letter dated March 2010. In July 2011, a letter from the DoD Siting Clearinghouse gave the SunZia project a “green” status, subject to the conditions of the May 2011 letter. As the Siting Clearinghouse is tasked with the responsibility to act as “a ‘one-stop-shop’ for comprehensive, expedited evaluation of energy projects and their potential effect on DoD operations,” both the BLM and the project sponsors relied on the approval of this route by the DoD Siting Clearinghouse as an indication that the route was acceptable to the defense installations affected by the project.
WSMR, as a cooperating agency, continued to express its preference for several alternate routes, which were considered in the draft EIS. However, those routes were ultimately rejected by the BLM in the draft EIS because of unavoidable conflicts with other federal lands and proximity to residential areas. Ultimately, the preferred route selected by BLM met the criteria set by the Clearinghouse, including the northern shift requested in the May 2011 letter.
After the publication of the draft EIS, WSMR and DoD informed BLM that they could not support the preferred alternative because of conflicts with the testing mission at WSMR, despite the original clearance of the preferred route by the DoD Siting Clearinghouse. The DoD requested a supplemental EIS to reconsider a more northerly route that had already been evaluated and eliminated earlier in the NEPA process, which would have added at least a year to the approval process.
While BLM was considering the request for a supplemental EIS, DoD again reconsidered its routing preferences and indicated to BLM that the route they requested consideration of through a supplemental EIS would not meet WSMR’s needs, and asked BLM to reopen the EIS scoping process and consider a much different route outside the scope of the EIS study area—a scope that was finalized in June 2010. Returning to the scoping process would have led to a delay of years, and BLM determined that its existing EIS fully considered all reasonable alternatives and met the requirements of NEPA. BLM published the final EIS on June 14, 2013.
Reopening the EIS would not be the first delay. According to the timeline originally agreed to by the BLM and the project sponsors, the draft EIS was scheduled to be published in January 2010, with a final record of decision by the end of 2010. With an expanded scope and a supplemental EIS, a record of decision would be unlikely before the end of 2014, representing a delay of at least four years. Moreover, DoD and WSMR have not yet provided any assurances that the route that they currently prefer will still be acceptable to them at any time in the future. Without such assurances, there is no guarantee that an expanded scope and supplemental EIS will lead to a final siting decision. Citing these delays, the project’s investors earlier this year informed then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that the project is in danger of being canceled.
If the project is withdrawn, it will significantly damage New Mexico’s prospects for large-scale renewable energy development. Without the ability to sell wind and solar energy outside the state, the demand for commercial scale renewable energy development will remain low. A study by New Mexico State University and the University of Arizona found that construction of the SunZia project and associated renewable energy projects would bring up to 34,900 private sector jobs to the state of New Mexico. In this time of economic instability, New Mexico needs the jobs and economic opportunities this project would bring. Moreover, further delays in this review process may discourage investors from considering other projects in New Mexico because of the potential difficulty in navigating siting conflicts in the state.
Additionally, another delay on this project threatens the credibility of the DoD Siting Clearinghouse process. SunZia was selected as an early “fast track” project for the nine-agency Rapid Response Team for Transmission and was intended to act as an example of how DoD and the Department of the Interior could work together to resolve energy siting conflicts quickly and collaboratively. If the EIS is reopened despite the fact that BLM’s preferred route follows the criteria of the Clearinghouse’s approval letter, other federal agencies and project sponsors will not be able to rely on the Clearinghouse in their own siting processes, rendering it irrelevant.
We appreciate the tremendous work that all the federal agencies involved in the review of SunZia have done to fully evaluate the impacts of the project on federal resources and missions. WSMR is a one-of-a-kind facility that provides capabilities vital to our national security. Both BLM and WSMR, in addition to the other cooperating agencies, have dedicated years to determining the effects of the proposed project.
The federal government has a critical role to play in promoting renewable energy and reducing our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Our nation’s public lands are a tremendous asset in developing clean energy resources, and the successful development of transmission projects like SunZia are vital to our economy and our clean energy future. Thank you for your steadfast commitment to combating climate change and for your assistance on this important issue.
United States Senator