New Mexico Senator intervenes in SunZia stand-off

One of New Mexico’s U.S. senators is trying to broker a resolution between the military and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over the routing of the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, planned to connect renewable energy-rich eastern New Mexico to Arizona and markets in the West.

In a Sept. 19 letter to Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall following up an earlier conversation, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), formally requested that the Department of Defense (DoD) use its research and development laboratory, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, to evaluate security concerns that officials at White Sands Missile Range have with the project. Specifically, he asked that the laboratory be engaged to evaluate concerns “and examine potential changes to test protocols that would allow DoD to adapt to the presence of a new transmission line.”

The project’s developers say they have also requested an independent review by Lincoln Laboratory.

“We’ve been asking for some time for a review of mission impacts as described by White Sands,” Tom Wray, SunZia’s project manager, told TransmissionHub on Sept. 23. He added that DoD has been unwilling to act on SunZia’s request. However, Heinrich’s letter constitutes a formal request for such a review.

Heinrich’s request also asks that the lab identify “mitigation measures to allow missions to continue and allow for construction of the transmission line,” a request that aligns with the project developer’s desires.

“Lincoln Labs is in a good place to recommend work-arounds so that the tests they’re running at White Sands are not compromised and the line can go in,” Wray said, adding that potential effects on missions have yet to be independently determined.  “Because the route contained in the final EIS is north of the area designated as restricted airspace, we have trouble understanding why there is an impact.”

A review by an outside agency would focus on whether the line would affect test operations and potential mitigation measures but would not result in a change to the line’s route.

“The alignment that’s there is the result of a 4-1/2 year NEPA examination, and that alignment is not likely to change,” Wray said. “It’s what you can do within that alignment to allow testing to continue to take place out there to the degree there is any impact at all.”

Heinrich’s call for an independent evaluation mirrors a recommendation made by the former head of the DoD Siting Clearinghouse, who spoke to TransmissionHub on Sept. 3. Like the senator, retired Air Force Colonel David Belote said he believed an outside study would provide an independent evaluation of the DoD’s concerns and either validate or nullify the contention that the project would affect the test profile capability at the missile range.

Heinrich was a vocal supporter of the proposed project prior to his most recent letter to DoD. On Aug. 19, he sent 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 credibility of the DoD siting clearinghouse, which gave the project a green light in 2011 under Belote’s leadership. 

“If the [environmental impact statement (EIS) process] 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 process, rendering it irrelevant,” Heinrich said in August.

Further, reopening the EIS would result in additional delays that could kill the project, Heinrich said, referring to a January letter developers sent to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Those additional delays could cause investors to back out because the delay would give an advantage to other proposed transmission lines, Wray said.

However, Wray is confident that a compromise can be worked out and noted that developers have already offered to make accommodations to avoid conflicts with low-flying training missions. The alignment in the final EIS is 30 miles north of the base boundary, farther north than reflected in the draft EIS. The developer has also agreed to use shorter towers along the contested portion of the route, resulting in a reduction in line height from 135 feet to 90 feet, all in the interest of finding a compromise that will allow the project to proceed.

“I’m skeptical that there are any serious impacts that would compromise what they’re doing out there,” Wray said. “Lincoln Labs would bear that out.”

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.”

BLM had been expected to issue its record of decision (ROD) on the final EIS, including the preferred route alignment, later this month or in early October, but that will likely be delayed, Wray said.

“They’re looking at late October or early November … to await completion of a biological opinion by the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Wray said. The deadline for that opinion is Oct. 17, and the ROD cannot be issued until the biological opinion has been provided, he added.

As planned, 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.

The company expects to commence the state permitting process in 4Q13, with state regulatory approvals granted from New Mexico and Arizona next year.

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% stake.