Debate rages over merits of SunZia power line, adequacy of BLM’s analysis

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Bureau of Land Management’s plan to route a transmission line from New Mexico to Arizona and through a pristine valley renowned for its biological diversity has sparked an intense debate among elected leaders, residents and conservation groups over the merits of the project and its potential environmental impacts.

Among the vocal opponents of the proposed route for the 515-mile-long SunZia Southwest Transmission Line Project is Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who said this week that he is deeply disappointed that BLM’s “preferred alternative” in a final environmental impact statement issued Friday proposes to run the line through the San Pedro River Valley in southern Arizona.

The valley is an important layover for more than 4 million migratory birds each year and provides habitat for deer, bobcats and mountain lions. What’s more, the San Pedro River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, and some fear the two 500-kilovolt high-tower transmission lines, if not properly sited, could interrupt that flow.

“This route will damage a precious southern Arizona resource and harm sensitive species. It’s that simple,” Grijalva said yesterday. “I’m not alone in wondering why we can’t focus more on following existing transmission routes. The BLM’s proposal is inconsistent with its conservation goals in the San Pedro watershed. The benefits of building this project specifically along this route do not outweigh the risks to wildlife and sensitive ecosystems that it presents.”

But the Obama administration has made the SunZia project a priority, saying it will help develop huge wind resources in central New Mexico and, to a lesser extent, solar power in Arizona (E&ENews PM, June 14).

The SunZia project — which could carry as much as 4,500 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power 1.5 million homes — is viewed as critical to meeting renewable portfolio standards in both New Mexico, where 20 percent of generation must come from renewables by 2020, and Arizona, which must meet a 15 percent RPS by 2025. A number of wind, solar and geothermal power projects are under development in the two states, and proponents say the new line is needed to transport power from remote generation sites to major load centers as far away as Los Angeles.

BLM officials say they have made every attempt to route the transmission line parallel to existing utility infrastructure and to use existing roads to minimize disturbance and reduce impacts to sensitive resources. About 273 miles of the preferred route would run within designated utility corridors, with about 185 miles of the line running on BLM lands in New Mexico and Arizona.

But the proposed route crosses the valley about 10 miles north of Benson, Ariz., and follows the west side of the San Pedro River for more than 45 miles.

Grijalva notes that the Fish and Wildlife Service last year began exploring what it calls a “collaborative conservation initiative” in the region that would involve working with landowners on voluntary measures designed to restore the Lower San Pedro River. Among the strategies being considered is the designation of a new wildlife refuge in the valley.

Grijalva said the results of Fish and Wildlife’s assessment of the conservation values of the region could contradict the conclusions in BLM’s environmental review of the SunZia project.

“We have to protect the San Pedro River and keep in mind the communities that call this unique place home,” he said. “The public demands a route with the fewest negative impacts to archaeological resources, migratory birds and rural communities. I don’t believe this route fits the bill.”

That’s certainly the view of the Cascabel Working Group, a grass-roots organization of residents that works to protect the lower and middle San Pedro River Valley and to educate the community about the valley’s cultural and archaeological significance.

Norm “Mick” Meader, the working group’s co-chairman, said BLM received more than 900 public comments critical of the transmission line project after the draft EIS was released last year. But he said the agency did not address the concerns in detail in the final EIS, arguing further that the agency did not consider them in ways that would strengthen the project and make it more legally defensible.

“The scale of the dismissal of substantive comments to the SunZia draft environmental impact statement is stunning,” Meader said. “We were waiting to see if the BLM would honor and incorporate them in the final EIS to reduce legal challenges, and they have not.”

Project supporters

For its part, BLM worked with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and agency officials say the project’s route will follow an existing power line for most of its path through the sensitive valley.

The project proponent, Phoenix-based SunZia Transmission LLC, has also agreed to a host of measures designed to mitigate impacts. Among them, the company has committed to use helicopters to place the high-tower lines proposed in untouched areas of the valley to avoid building access roads.

While Defenders of Wildlife, the Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others, have expressed concerns about routing the line through the San Pedro Valley, not every conservation group is opposed to the project.

Boulder, Colo.-based Western Resource Advocates says it supports the SunZia project because of the line’s potential to add new sources of renewable energy to the electricity grid.

Gary Graham, who directs WRA’s lands program, said the group has “concerns with some parts of the route alternatives.” However, Graham said that these concerns do not present insurmountable obstacles and that the project’s overall benefits are worth the effort.

“If SunZia moves forward, it could open the floodgates for renewable energy development and a new route toward a clean energy future,” he said. “Projects like SunZia are critical for expediting renewable energy production, transitioning away from fossil fuels and combating the effects of climate change. Strategically placed and environmentally responsible new transmission lines are needed to keep up with increasing demand for renewable energy in the West.”

Ian Calkins, a spokesman for SunZia Transmission in Phoenix, said in a statement that the final EIS released last week is a “milestone” that gets the region “closer towards strengthening the electrical grid and unleashing the energy potential in New Mexico and Arizona.”

But Meader and others question whether the line will really benefit renewables development, and after reading the voluminous final EIS, he said BLM is advancing the project “without realistically and honestly assessing its actual ue, ned or feasibility in order to expedite a wishful policy.”

“The BLM instead employs a highly idealized scenario for SunZia’s use that does not fully consider future overall power needs in the Southwest nor the project proponent’s underlying intentions,” he said. “In doing so, the BLM is sacrificing an Arizona environmental gem that governmental agencies — including the BLM itself — corporations, public interest groups and individuals have worked for more than three decades to protect.”