BLM moves closer to approving major multistate power line

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Bureau of Land Management has taken a major step toward authorizing one of the nation’s largest proposed electricity transmission projects, releasing a draft plan that the agency said addresses lingering concerns about impacts to nearby military installations and sensitive wildlife habitat.

BLM today published in the Federal Register a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 530-mile-long SunZia Southwest Transmission Project that has been under federal review for three years. The power line would have the capacity to transport as much as 4,500 megawatts of mostly renewables-generated electricity from northeast New Mexico to an electric distribution point northwest of Tucson, Ariz. Once there, it would connect to a larger grid powering metropolitan areas like Phoenix and Los Angeles.

The three-volume draft EIS is open for public comment through Aug. 22. BLM expects to issue a final EIS and a record of decision (ROD) authorizing the project by the end of the year, said Donna Hummel, a BLM spokeswoman in Santa Fe, N.M.

Ian Calkins, a spokesman for SunZia Transmission LLC, the Phoenix-based company that has proposed building the power line, said the company wants to start construction next year and bring the transmission line into service by 2016.

“We appreciate the persistent and professional efforts of the BLM and over a dozen federal and state agencies involved in the creation of this draft EIS,” Tom Wray, the company’s SunZia project manager, said in a statement. “Upon issuance of a final EIS, SunZia will concentrate on obtaining all remaining siting approvals in both Arizona and New Mexico.”

The Obama administration has identified the SunZia transmission line as a priority project, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar vowed last year to accelerate the federal permitting process for SunZia and seven other transmission projects in 12 states (Greenwire, Oct. 5, 2011).

The SunZia line — which could carry enough electricity to power more than 1.5 million homes — is also viewed as critical to meeting renewable portfolio standards (RPS) 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. Dozens of solar, geothermal and wind power projects are under development in the two states, and proponents say the new line would transport power from remote generation sites to major load centers.

But BLM’s “preferred alternative” outlined in the draft EIS is a significantly altered version of the original 2009 proposal, adding about 70 miles to the original route in an effort to move the line away from sensitive wildlife habitat and a nearby Army missile testing range in southwest New Mexico.

“The BLM has been working with its cooperating agencies to respond to the issues raised by the public. We feel the draft EIS provides for a balanced approach to resolving these planning issues,” Bill Merhege, BLM’s deputy state director for lands and resources in Santa Fe, said today in a statement.

Most concerning are the potential impacts of the proposed project on weapons testing at the White Sands Missile Range — the nation’s largest military installation, covering 3,200 square miles.

The Army warned BLM two years ago that an errant missile or rocket could strike one of the high-tower transmission lines — some as tall as 175 feet — proposed along the northern, eastern and western borders of the range, potentially wiping out a large section of the West Coast’s electricity grid (Land Letter, April 8, 2010).

Most of the 70 miles added to the power-line route was proposed to avoid encroaching on White Sands and the Army’s Fort Bliss to the south. The preferred alternative would take the route of the line much farther north and west away from the White Sands Missile Range, according to the draft EIS.

The Army and the Air Force were both cooperating agencies involved in the draft EIS.

Officials with the missile range declined to say much about the draft EIS. “White Sands Missile Range is a cooperating agency on the SunZia EIS. During this period of review, we will not be making any public comments concerning the draft EIS,” Monte Marlin, the base’s chief of public affairs, said today in an emailed statement to Greenwire.

Hummel, the BLM spokeswoman, said the agency is trying to accommodate the military as much as possible.

“The additional miles are not based only on the military installations, but we were looking at how to preserve and protect their functions and purposes while still offering the project proponent an economically feasible route,” she said.

But, Hummel acknowledged, “there still appears to be some military concerns” about the route of the project.

“The military understood there was going to have to be a decision made, and we were going to have to select a preferred route,” she said. “We believe this is the best that we could do given the information we have to avoid as many of the conflicts that were brought up during public scoping.”

Environmental obstacles

BLM also amended the line’s route in the preferred alternative to stay within existing utility corridors as much as possible. Under the agency’s preferred option, more than half the line’s route, or 296 miles, would run parallel to existing or designated utility corridors, with 220 miles running parallel to existing transmission lines.

The proposed project consists of two parallel 500-kilovolt lines running across southern New Mexico and Arizona in a 400-foot-wide right of way, though some sections would require up to 1,000 feet of right of way, according to the draft EIS.

As with most multistate projects, there are plenty of environmental concerns, including the SunZia line’s possible impacts to publicly owned habitat for the threatened aplomado falcon in New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and to migratory birds and environmentally sensitive wildlife habitat in southern Arizona.

The project, for example, would cross the Rio Grande and would involve siting transmission towers along 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.

The San Pedro also is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, and some fear the towers and lines, if not properly sited, could interrupt that flow.

Critics, including Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), have publicly urged BLM to route the line so that it avoids the San Pedro River Valley.

The draft EIS includes extensive mitigation, but environmentalists who have tracked the power-line project say they need a lot of time to read the multivolume document and multiple appendixes, which in total are thousands of pages long.

“I would say that we’re still digesting the details,” said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.

Environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society and WildEarth Guardians, have been generally supportive of the SunZia project in the past, noting that project proponents reached out to them early in the process and have worked with them since the project was formally proposed in 2009.

But Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter in Phoenix, said an initial review of the draft EIS raises concerns.

“It looks like the issues relative to the lower San Pedro River Valley and the Aravaipa Valley are still significant,” Bahr said. “At this point, I have to say we still have significant concerns with it.”

Hummel said BLM is confident the latest project route has minimized environmental impacts, but she said the line’s route could still be tweaked before a final EIS is released.

“These kinds of projects are never easy,” she said. “There were issues about environmentally sensitive lands not only in Arizona but also here in New Mexico. It has been a long haul, but given the number of comments raised in public scoping, the preferred alternative does seem to offer the least number of concerns.”