New Mexico’s governor supports DoD position in SunZia project

New Mexico’s governor has thrown her support behind the Department of Defense (DoD) in the ongoing dispute over the portion of the routing of the proposed 515-mile SunZia Southwest Transmission project that would cross the northern extension of the White Sands Missile Range.

Gov. Susana Martinez (R-N.M.) sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Aug. 16, warning that a 35-mile stretch of the line across the northern extension could have a “potentially devastating impact” on military capabilities at White Sands and at Holloman Air Force Base, threatening national security, disrupting military operations, and resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in lost wages.

While a BLM spokesperson confirmed the governor’s position on project, the agency was not able to provide a copy of the letter.

“The Governor’s letter will only become public on publication of our record of decision [(ROD)] because it is part of the consistency review, so it is an internal document until the final decision is made,” a BLM spokesperson told TransmissionHub Sept. 5.

Numerous requests to the governor’s office seeking a copy of the letter have gone unanswered.

Martinez’ letter to the BLM preceded by three days an Aug. 19 letter that U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) sent to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in which he said the SunZia project has been delayed long enough, and that additional delays would damage the government’s credibility.

Heinrich’s letter “outlin[ed] the deliberate, transparent, and comprehensive siting process involved in the SunZia energy transmission project in New Mexico,” and pointed to several instances in which the DoD and the White Sands Missile Range had changed their positions on the project’s route.

“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 BLM consider moving the portion near White Sands farther 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.

The retired Air Force colonel who was head of the Clearinghouse at the time it gave a green light to the project confirmed that the preferred route selected by BLM met the criteria set by the Clearinghouse at the time the letter was issued.

“Obviously, something changed within DoD,” David Belote told TransmissionHub Sept. 3.

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 the facility’s northern extension. In addition, developers have offered to reduce the height of the towers along that portion of the line from 135 feet to 90 feet.

The military, however, has suggested that a 35-mile stretch of line be buried, an option developers have called “neither technically feasible nor economically reasonable.”

Only a handful of high-profile New Mexico politicos have come out in support of the military’s position. Like Martinez, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) also aligns with the military’s opposition to the line. The chairs of the Grant County and Luna County commissions, the mayor of Deming, N.M., and a range of local leaders have spoken out in favor of the project and the benefits it would bring to their communities. Both Heinrich and his colleague, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), have called for compromise from both sides.

Belote told TransmissionHub that an independent scientific evaluation of the route alternatives for the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project could help resolve the conflict between the DoD and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over the preferred route and its potential impact on military operations. The BLM state director who will sign the ROD is considering the possibility of an external review and is supportive of such an option, though no final decision has been made, according to the BLM spokesperson.

While developers have made adjustments and continue to express a willingness to work with the DoD and missile range officials, they have warned that additional delays that would accompany any required additional environmental studies could cause investors to back out because the delay would have given an advantage to other proposed transmission lines, effectively killing the project.

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

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 late September or early October, the BLM spokesperson said.

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.