New Mexico senator fights for SunZia

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) has thrown his support behind the proposed SunZia Southwest transmission project with a three-page letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewel in which he said the project has been delayed long enough, and that additional delays would damage the government’s credibility.

Heinrich’s Aug. 19 letter “outlin[ed] the deliberate, transparent, and comprehensive siting process involved in the SunZia energy transmission project in New Mexico,” and pointed to several occasions on which the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the White Sands Missile Range had changed their positions on the project’s route, according to a statement on Heinrich’s website.

As outlined in the project’s final environmental impact statement (EIS), the preferred route would pass approximately 30 miles north of the base’s northern boundary, within an area considered the facility’s northern extension.

“The DoD Siting Clearinghouse gave the SunZia project a ‘green’ status, subject to the conditions of [a] May 2011 letter,” in which DoD indicated approval of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) preferred route under the condition that the portion near White Sands be shifted to the north. That shift, Heinrich noted in his letter, was reflected in BLM’s final preferred route, which was refined from the route outlined in the draft EIS. 

“Ultimately, the preferred route selected by BLM met the criteria set by the Clearinghouse,” Heinrich said.

Created by DoD in 2010, the Siting Clearinghouse provides a “one-stop-shop” for comprehensive, expedited evaluation of energy projects and their potential effect on DoD operations, according to the Clearinghouse’s website. Should the project be delayed, it would threaten the credibility of the DoD Siting Clearinghouse process, Heinrich said.

“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 proves, rendering it irrelevant,” Heinrich said.

Further, reopening the EIS would result in additional delays that could kill the project, Heinrich said, referring to a communication by the project’s investors earlier this year to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The SunZia project is one of seven projects selected as an early fast-track project for the nine-agency Rapid Response Team for Transmission (RRTT). Accordingly, additional delays could also erode the credibility of that effort, Heinrich said, noting that the RRTT “was intended to act as an example of how DoD and the U.S. Department of the Interior could work together to resolve energy siting conflicts quickly and collaboratively.”

Heinrich’s letter also outlined the importance of the SunZia project to the state’s economy and its nascent renewable energy industry.

If the project was cancelled, “it will significantly damage New Mexico’s prospects for large-scale renewable energy development” by depriving renewable generators of a path to major western energy demand centers.

“Without access to those markets, New Mexico’s renewable energy resources will remain isolated and largely untapped,” he added.

Heinrich is not the only official to publicly criticize the DoD for wavering in its approval of the project. Luna County, N.M., Commission Chairman Javier Diaz and Andres Silva, mayor of the city of Deming, N.M., sent a joint letter of support to Salazar in February, expressing similar concerns.

BLM is expected to issue its record of decision on the final EIS in September.

The 515-mile SunZia project will originate at the new SunZia East substation in New Mexico and heads west, with significant portions running parallel to I-25 and the Rio Grande River. The route follows a pipeline corridor north of I-10 in New Mexico and continues into Arizona, where it alternately uses existing pipeline and utility corridors where available before terminating at a new substation in Pinal County near Coolidge, Ariz.

A consortium of five companies is sponsoring the project. Three of those companies – Southwestern Power Group II/MMR Group, Shell WindEnergy Inc., and Tucson Electric Power – are sponsoring 86% of the project. Salt River Project has a 13% stake and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association has a 1% interest.