White House set to approve multistate line over DOD objections — N.M. officials

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, May 2, 2014

New Mexico leaders say they’ve been told that the Obama administration is set to approve routing a contested power line project near an Army missile testing range, a move that they say will put the range’s mission at risk and weaken national security.

Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) issued a statement late yesterday saying his office has learned that the White House is set to announce that it will allow developers of the SunZia Southwest Transmission Line Project to route a roughly 35-mile section of the New Mexico-to-Arizona line through restricted airspace just north of the White Sands Missile Range.And a top official in Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration circulated an email to state leaders telling them that the Defense Department and the White House have held briefings informing interested parties that the contested section of the proposed 515-mile-long SunZia line will be approved.

The section of line at issue would not touch any of White Sands’ 2.2 million acres of withdrawn federal lands, but it would cross a section of restricted airspace referred to as the missile range’s Northern Extension Area. The DOD has strongly objected to this section of the proposed route, fearing it could interfere with training and weapons testing, placing the range at risk of closure.

The Bureau of Land Management, which is reviewing the project, has endorsed the route through the Northern Extension Area as its “preferred alternative” in a final environmental impact statement for the power line released last year.

“It is irresponsible that the White House would side with corporate profits over the safety and wellbeing of our men and women in uniform,” Pearce, whose district includes the missile range, said in his statement. “White Sands Missile Range provides the military with the only long range ‘live-fire’ facility to test future weapons systems essential for our national defense. Allowing the SunZia project to interfere with our national security shows this administration’s continued disregard for those who risk their lives for our freedom.”

Pearce’s statement was sparked in part by an email from Hanson Scott, director of the New Mexico Office of Military Base Planning and Support.

Scott, in the email circulated yesterday to government leaders in the state, wrote that on Tuesday, “I was told that the ‘decision’ was the ‘BLM Preferred Route’” for the line through the range’s Northern Extension Area, with a provision that a 5-mile section of the line be buried underground.

“Would say that my information is certainly not official, and that we should look to announcements or other information from [White Sands] as this action unfolds,” Scott wrote.

But he added that he had talked Tuesday with Dan Hicks, the missile range’s deputy executive director for strategic initiatives, “and he was severely disappointed” that a decision has apparently been made to route the line near the range.

“Certainly, this is one of the most significant issues facing our State in recent years, given the potential long-term impact on [the White Sands Missile Range],” he wrote.

Scott, a retired Air Force brigadier general, declined to elaborate on his email, saying during an interview yesterday, “We are just waiting for an official statement on the decision.”

The White House Council on Environmental Quality did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman with the White Sands Missile Range declined to comment, referring questions to a DOD spokesman in Washington, D.C., who could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

But DOD has been clear that it opposes routing the line through the Northern Extension Area. The Obama administration has made the SunZia project a priority in large part because of the area’s potentially significant wind resources and the fact that wind farms will not be built without the ability to transport the electricity they produce to major load centers as far away as Los Angeles.

And in a 15-page report DOD submitted to Congress in March detailing activity under its siting clearinghouse program, Defense officials said that they have determined the SunZia project has “an unacceptable risk to national security.”

Adrian Garcia, a BLM project manager in Santa Fe, N.M., overseeing the review of SunZia, said he was “not aware” that a decision had been made on the power line’s route. A BLM spokesman referred questions to the White House press office, which could not be reached for comment.

Ian Calkins, a spokesman for the project proponents, Phoenix-based SunZia Transmission LLC, declined to comment, saying they have not seen a final proposal.

But he did say in an email that all sides, including DOD, “are working diligently to develop a solution that preserves [White Sand's] mission and allows New Mexico to take advantage of new jobs and tax revenue, currently on hold.”

It’s not clear what impact burying sections of the line would have on the project. Calkins has said in the past that burying the line is technically and economically infeasible.

The debate over siting the SunZia power line has become in recent months an increasingly political, high-stakes game. Martinez, the New Mexico governor, sent a letter last week to President Obama, and a separate letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, expressing concern that routing the line near the missile range “poses an unacceptable national security risk.”

In Martinez’s letter to Obama, she urged him to direct the Interior Department “to develop a plan for the SunZia Project which avoids negatively impacting the mission performance of WSMR.”

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wrote his own letter to Hagel and Jewell directing DOD to work with Interior “to find and deploy” a workable solution that “provides for the rapid construction” of the SunZia project. Reid wrote that DOD’s “siting clearinghouse” provision in the fiscal 2011 Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act calls for DOD to work out any siting conflicts for renewable energy projects and needed transmission line projects in a timely manner and, if not, to show documented proof that the project represents an unacceptable risk to national security (E&ENews PM, April 8).

To help find a resolution, DOD last year directed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to study whether the proposed power line will interfere with the mission of the White Sands Missile Range and, if so, what operational changes the range could make to coexist with the power line.

To date, the results of the MIT study have not been released to the public.

DOD officials and representatives from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, however, briefed congressional staffers and the project proponents in March on the study results.

New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich (D), a big supporter of the SunZia project, said that the formal briefing revealed that the MIT study offers some “pragmatic solutions to allow SunZia and [the missile range] to mutually exist.” Officials with SunZia Transmission echoed those comments.

But Pearce told reporters in March that the MIT study revealed that the SunZia line could harm the missile range and should be rerouted, and he has called on the SunZia project proponents to reroute the line away from the missile range (E&ENews PM, March 11).

Pearce did not back away from that stance in his latest statement, asserting that the SunZia backers have resisted moving the line away from the missile range.

“We must not allow political influence and corporate profits to interfere with national security,” he said in the statement. “It is not an acceptable answer for the people of New Mexico or the people of the United States.”