Congressman says MIT report found problems with major power line project

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A federal study found that a proposed multistate transmission line could harm a New Mexico Army training and weapons testing range and should be rerouted, a key lawmaker said today.
However, a senator who supports the project claimed the study — which has not been released to the public at the request of the White House Council on Environmental Quality — offers “pragmatic solutions” and encouraged the Obama administration to approve the project.The study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the request of the Defense Department evaluated whether the 515-mile-long SunZia Southwest Transmission Line Project can be built without interfering 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.The study results were shared yesterday with congressional staffers and today with the Phoenix-based company proposing to build the New Mexico-to-Arizona power line.

But New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce (R), who has said he supports the project as long as it does not interfere with the Army weapons testing range, held a teleconference today with reporters to disclose that the MIT study found the proposed route of the SunZia line could restrict the mission of the White Sands Missile Range, eliminating about 30 percent of the range’s capability for weapons testing and potentially making it vulnerable to closure during a time of military budget cuts.

Pearce said the MIT report concluded that “vertical obstruction” from the towers and the power lines themselves would interfere with testing and training and that the power lines could be vulnerable if a missile or other weapon being tested were to explode.

Pearce said the possibility of what the MIT report termed “debris” from exploding ordnance falling onto a power line is real, noting a “missile fail” at the base two months ago.

Pearce said the Phoenix-based project proponent, SunZia Transmission LLC, needs to move the proposed route of the line or bury the roughly 35-mile section of line route that would cross a section of restricted airspace referred to as the missile range’s Northern Extension Area.

Pearce, whose district includes the White Sands Missile Range, said he has told the project proponents not to route the line so close to the missile range but that they did not listen. SunZia officials have said it is not technically or economically feasible to bury 35 miles of 500-kilovolt electricity lines.

“This should absolutely clear up the field and tell SunZia, ‘Please, with all due respect, we appreciate your desire for bottom-line profits, but at the end of the day don’t risk our national defense mission and don’t risk the jobs there in the middle of the state.’ So that basically is what this report says,” he said.

Pearce also said that if his office can, it will post the MIT study on the congressman’s website.

“It’s not a top-secret report,” he said. “It should be available.”

He said the reason it’s not being released publicly is political. The project is expected to carry to market up to 4,500 megawatts of mostly wind-generated electricity from planned wind farms in New Mexico to population centers in the West, supporting the Obama administration’s efforts to expand the use of renewable energy.

The MIT report, he said, puts a wrench in those plans.

“This is fairly easy stuff,” he said. “It’s a hard problem because you’ve got two agencies that have been fighting at the secretarial level for years. I sure don’t know what’s classified about this.”

But Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a big supporter of the power line project who asked DOD to commission MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory to conduct the study, disputed a negative interpretation of the study results.

The MIT study was done largely in response to a September letter Heinrich wrote to Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Heinrich’s staff was part of the congressional briefing yesterday with DOD and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

He said in a statement today that the MIT report offers “pragmatic solutions” for getting the power line built without compromising the mission of the base, though he did not specify what solutions were offered in the study. He urged the Obama administration to grant final approval to construct the project.

Heinrich in August wrote a three-page letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell commending the Bureau of Land Management’s years-long review of the SunZia project and asserting that its completion is critical to New Mexico’s economy (Greenwire, Aug. 20, 2013).

In his letter, Heinrich pointed to a study conducted by New Mexico State University and the University of Arizona that estimated construction of the SunZia project and the “associated renewable energy projects” that would be built as a result would establish about 34,900 private-sector jobs in New Mexico.

“I have consistently fought to support the state-of-the-art military training, research and development, and testing that occurs in New Mexico, and I will continue to do so,” Heinrich said today in a statement. “But it is also important to find common ground that does not preclude one national priority over the other when both priorities can be realized, especially when it means so many jobs for New Mexicans.”

Heinrich also said the briefings with congressional staff and the project proponent were considered “classified, which limits the amount of information that can be shared with the public.”

But he added, “I encourage the Department of Defense to make the unclassified results of this study available” to the public.