N.M. hearing examiner recommends SunZia’s request for location approval be denied without prejudice

New Mexico Public Regulation Commission Hearing Examiner Ashley Schannauer, in a July 31 recommended decision, recommended that the commission order that SunZia Transmission, LLC’s request for location approval regarding its proposed SunZia Southwest Transmission Project is denied without prejudice.

Schannauer also recommended that the commission order that SunZia’s request for the determination of a 200-foot width of right of way (ROW) for each of the two proposed transmission lines that are part of the project is granted.

A SunZia representative could not be immediately reached for comment on Aug. 1.

As noted in the recommended decision, SunZia in March filed an application seeking that the commission:

  • Approve the location of two 500-kV transmission lines and related facilities in the specified areas of Lincoln, Socorro, Sierra, Luna, Grant, Torrance, and Hidalgo counties
  • Determine that a ROW width of about 400 feet – i.e., 200 feet for each transmission line – which may require a width of up to 1,000 feet in a few locations, is necessary for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the project

The SunZia project consists of two transmission lines about 520 miles long, Schannauer said, adding that the lines would start at the proposed SunZia East substation in Lincoln County near Corona, N.M., just east of highway US 54, and terminate at the existing Pinal Central substation in Pinal County, Ariz., near the Town of Coolidge. Schannauer also noted that the two separate 500-kV lines would operate in alternating current (AC) configuration with a total approximate length within New Mexico of 320 miles – that is, 134 miles, or 42%, in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands; 96.2 miles, or 30%, in New Mexico State Land Office trust lands; and 90 miles, or 28%, in private fee lands.

As TransmissionHub reported, SunZia, in a motion added to the commission’s website on June 19, requested that a hearing examiner issue an order authorizing the company to amend and replace its original application with an amended application regarding its proposed 500-kV transmission project.

The application sought that a commission order determine that a total ROW width of about 400 feet – i.e., 200 feet for each transmission line – which may require a width of up to 1,000 feet in a few locations, is necessary for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the project.

In its June filing, SunZia said that its pre-filed testimony, discovery responses, and testimony during cross-examination reflect that for each transmission line and related facilities, only a 200-foot ROW is required. The company noted that its pre-filed testimony and testimony during cross-examination reflect that the request for up to 1,000 feet in the original application was limited to adjusting the alignment of the 200-foot ROWs for each of the transmission lines during micro-siting in very discrete areas and only in certain exceptional circumstances.

“SunZia is requesting leave to amend and replace its original application with the amended application attached hereto as Exhibit A to clarify that it is only seeking an order from the commission approving a total of 400 feet of [ROWs], i.e., two 200 foot [ROWs] for each transmission line, and is not seeking approval of a 1,000 foot” ROW, the company said.

The amended application does not “broaden the scope of the issues,” as it is only removing references to 1,000 feet and clarifying that SunZia is seeking approval of 200 feet ROWs for each of the two transmission lines, the company said.

In the July 31 recommended decision, Schannauer noted that on June 19, SunZia filed a written motion requesting the commission to allow it to withdraw its June 18 motion – that is, the motion added to the commission’s website on June 19. The hearing examiner granted SunZia’s June 19 motion.

Schannauer added that in response to the hearing examiner’s request that SunZia identify in a brief the route for which it seeks commission approval, SunZia did not mention the 1,000-foot siting corridor. Instead, SunZia stated that the route is fully described and depicted in the BLM NEPA documents, including the environmental impact statement (EIS), which were offered as exhibits by SunZia.

SunZia noted that Martin Bailey’s direct testimony for SunZia provides a detailed narrative description of the project route:

  • The route originates about 11 miles south of the rural community of Corona and travels northwesterly through Lincoln, Torrance, and Socorro counties. The route then crosses the Rio Grande River south of the community of Escondida and heads further west, onto property owned by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NM Tech). At the northwest corner of NM Tech’s property, the route then heads south along the west side of El Paso Electric Company’s (EPE) existing 345-kV transmission line that runs from Albuquerque to the El Paso area and, after crossing US 60, enters the Chupadera Mountains, where it is parallel to EPE’s existing 345-kV transmission line. Continuing south and adjacent to that existing line, the route next enters the Willow Springs area, Highland Springs area, and the rural subdivision of Antelope Hills. Heading south, the route continues parallel to the EPE 345-kV transmission line until about three miles north of I-25, where it turns southwest. The route continues toward the southwest and parallels a Tri-State Generation and Transmission Cooperative 115-kV transmission line on the northwest side of I-25, crossing over and to the southeast side of I-25. The route then heads south parallel to another EPE 345-kV transmission line. Continuing parallel with EPE’s 345-kV transmission line, the route then enters Luna County, west of State Route 26, until reaching Mirage and turning due west. The route remains north of the City of Deming and I-10, and on the north side of both the Black and Grandmother Mountain Ranges. The route enters Grant County midway between Deming and Lordsburg, where it parallels an EPE 345-kV transmission line. The route crosses about 20 miles of the “boot heel” portion of Grant County, and then enters Hidalgo County northeast of the City of Lordsburg, where it continues parallel with both the 345-kV transmission line and an El Paso Natural Gas Company’s high pressure pipeline. As those lines intersect with US 70, the route turns west, crossing predominantly New Mexico State Trust and BLM lands until it enters Arizona

Schannauer added that according to SunZia, its project route description uses the same or a greater level of specificity than has been provided by other applicants whose projects have received location approval. SunZia also said that its descriptions and maps establish the location of its project route with a degree of specificity that meets certain requirements and allows the commission to evaluate whether the project route will unduly impair important environmental values.

Schannauer added that regulatory staff argues that SunZia’s proposed 1,000-foot siting corridor should be conditionally approved, and states that SunZia has sufficiently described the location for which it seeks approval under the Location Control Statue and the commission’s rules.

While a 1,000-foot corridor may be sufficiently precise to be approved under the Location Control Statute, the sufficiency of the description for such a corridor depends upon the precision with which the corridor has been defined, i.e., a precise description of the center line or borders of the corridor, Schannauer said.

“In this case, SunZia’s witnesses admit that the 1,000 foot corridor is not shown on any maps,” Schannauer said. “SunZia has also not described with any precision either the center line or the borders of the corridor. … Moreover, none of the maps cited in SunZia’s briefs shows a 1,000 foot corridor.”

The hearing examiner recognizes that the siting of a 520-mile transmission line is a difficult, time-consuming, and expensive task, Schannauer said, adding that SunZia states that it has spent more than $70m to date for a project ultimately expected to cost $2bn.

The most significant issue that has been identified in the hearing process is that a sufficiently defined route has not been determined, Schannauer said, adding that without a well-defined route, the commission is unable to conduct the review required under the Location Control Statute.

Among other things, Schannauer said that the environmental impact of a crossing of the Rio Grande north of Escondida is not complete, given the lack of a final location for the crossing and the continuing development of plans and mitigation measures to address the project’s impact on migratory birds and on endangered species. The need for a section 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers permit for the crossing is also still being reviewed.

Schannauer added that impacts on cultural resources, such as the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, are also uncertain.

About Corina Rivera-Linares 3286 Articles
Corina Rivera-Linares was TransmissionHub’s chief editor until August 2021, as well as part of the team that established TransmissionHub in 2011. Before joining TransmissionHub, Corina covered renewable energy and environmental issues, as well as transmission, generation, regulation, legislation and ISO/RTO matters at SNL Financial from 2005 to 2011. She has also covered such topics as health, politics, and education for weekly newspapers and national magazines.