Pentagon, project developers strike deal on N.M. missile range

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2014

A deal has been struck in the months-long battle over the path of a New Mexico-to-Arizona transmission line near an Army missile testing range, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agreeing to drop objections to the project if sections near the range are buried underground.

Backers of the 515-mile-long SunZia Southwest Transmission Project must also sign a legally binding “hold harmless agreement,” according to the one-page letter Hagel sent to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.Sources say the agreement aims to protect the Army from liability if an errant missile strikes one of the high-tower lines running just north of New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range.

Phoenix-based SunZia Transmission LLC, the project proponent, has agreed to Hagel’s request to bury 5 miles of the line near the missile range. “It’s going to be a challenge for us both economically and technically, but it appears that we can do this,” SunZia Transmission spokesman Ian Calkins said.

In addition, Calkins said the project backers would sign the liability waiver and take other steps requested by the Defense Department in an effort to move forward with the power project, which has been under federal review for roughly five years.

At issue is the roughly 35-mile section of the line just north of the range — the nation’s largest military installation, covering 3,200 square miles. The section of line at issue would not touch any of White Sands’ 2.2 million acres of withdrawn federal lands, but it would cross a section of restricted airspace referred to as the missile range’s Northern Extension Area, and the military fears that could interfere with training and weapons testing.

The Bureau of Land Management in June 2013 released a final environmental impact statement (EIS) that included a “preferred alternative” proposing to run the line through the Northern Extension Area — a move that drew quick objections from DOD officials, who feared that the proposed route would compromise the range’s valuable testing and training mission, weakening national security.

“To mitigate mission impacts, in consultation with the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Department of the Army, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I have determined that a total of five miles of the power line needs to be buried, in up to three separate segments, so that some low-altitude flight operations can occur,” Hagel wrote in his letter to Jewell.

Hagel’s letter was initially released late yesterday by New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich (D), who is a key supporter of the SunZia project and its potential to help tap into the enormous wind power potential on the east side of the state.

“I am hopeful that this mitigation proposal, which addresses our previous national security concerns, will be acceptable both to the Department of the Interior and to the applicant,” Hagel wrote. “If so, DOD formally rescinds its objection to the Preferred Alternative Route as described in the Final [EIS], with the expectation that the Bureau of Land Management will move promptly towards issuing a Record of Decision once it completes any other necessary steps.”

It’s not clear when the Interior Department will finalize a record of decision authorizing the project to proceed. BLM doesn’t have a release date for a ROD, said Donna Hummel, an agency spokeswoman in Santa Fe, N.M.

Jessica Kershaw, an Interior spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said in an emailed statement, “We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with DOD, as we have throughout this process, to identify next steps related to the proposed 1,500 megawatt transmission line, with the potential to expand to 4,500 megawatts, which will help to unlock otherwise inaccessible low-cost wind energy in New Mexico and provide hundreds of jobs.”

Hagel stated in his letter to Jewell that he would direct his staff to “provide you with a mitigation proposal identifying the location of those segments” to be buried, no later than Monday, June 2.

The cost to bury the lines — expected to add millions of dollars to the cost of the project — will be paid for by SunZia Transmission.

Mark Wright, a DOD spokesman in Washington, D.C., said in an email that the agency is “still working through the details of where the buried segments will be located.”

Calkins said they needed to see those details before they can determine the cost.

“It’s not an inexpensive endeavor to bury lines,” he said. “It’s certainly something we were hoping to avoid, but it looks like in this instance there’s no way to avoid burying the lines up to 5 miles.”

But Calkins said they are just glad a deal has been struck that will allow the $2 billion project to proceed.

“The bottom line is, we’ve always argued the lines shouldn’t be buried unless there’s a compelling reason to do so. And it appears burying this section of the line is the only way forward,” he said. “We need to work with the military on those details, but this provides a path forward for us to work together.”

Positive reaction

Hagel’s letter comes less than a month after New Mexico leaders told Greenwire that DOD had briefed officials at the White Sands Missile Range and others on a proposal in which they were prepared to approve the line in exchange for 5 miles of the line being buried north of the range (Greenwire, May 1).

Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), whose district includes the missile range, also issued a statement last month, saying his office had learned that the White House was set to announce that it would allow developers of the SunZia line to run a section through the range’s Northern Extension Area if sections were buried.

The differing opinions over the line and its possible impact to the White Sands Missile Range sparked a fierce debate.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) last month wrote letters to President Obama, Jewell and Hagel, urging them to either find another route away from the range or require the project proponents to bury the contested section of line (Greenwire, April 25).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also sent a letter to Jewell and Hagel urging the DOD secretary to work with Interior “to find and deploy” a workable solution that “provides for the rapid construction” of the proposed SunZia line (E&ENews PM, April 8).

But most of the reaction to Hagel’s letter was positive.

Pearce said in a statement yesterday that he wants to see more details of DOD’s mitigation proposal but issued cautious support for the project in the wake of Hagel’s letter.

“While I continue to believe the ideal solution is to bury the line the entire length of the range or move it [farther] north, I respect Department of Defense’s continued attempts to work with, and compromise with, the Department of the Interior and SunZia,” Pearce’s statement read.

Heinrich praised Hagel and the SunZia project backers during a conference call with reporters for working together on a deal to advance a power line that the Obama administration has identified as a priority project — 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.

“I have always said that, for security, our nation needs White Sands airspace. But it also needs New Mexico’s clean energy,” Heinrich said. “This represents a major step forward toward a resolution that really makes sure that we are protecting our existing jobs and we’re growing new jobs, too.”

Heinrich last year wrote a letter to Jewell in support of the SunZia project in which he highlighted 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 (Greenwire, Aug. 20, 2013).

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to sort of have our cake and eat it, too, here with the incredibly important work that White Sands does and the important jobs that are there, and also the potential for enormous infusion of construction jobs and also the renewable development that will come along with having a transmission [line] finally from stranded portions of the state to Arizona and California, where there’s high demand,” he said during the teleconference. “So I think this is really great news for the state of New Mexico and New Mexico’s economy.”

Additional mitigation

Burying the 5-mile section north of the White Sands Missile Range is just one part of a mitigation strategy outlined roughly in Hagel’s letter to Jewell.

In addition, SunZia Transmission must agree to three other mitigation measures before DOD drops its objection, according to Hagel’s letter.

Arguably the most significant is for the project backers to agree to “appropriate hold harmless agreements,” Hagel wrote, that free the Army from any liability in the event that a errant missile or exploring ordnance destroys or damages any of the high-tower transmission lines.

The Army warned BLM more than four years ago that an errant missile or rocket from the testing range could strike one of the high-tower transmission lines proposed along the borders of the range, potentially wiping out a large section of the West Coast’s electricity grid in the process (Land Letter, April 8, 2010).

“Generally, the intent is in the instance of unforeseen events that the military is not responsible for the risks that are involved,” said Calkins, the SunZia spokesman. “We’re going to do everything we can to avoid any unforeseen circumstances, to make sure the route and the construction is done in a way to avoid any variables or unforeseen circumstances. But as a safety valve, the military wants some assurance that they are not held liable.”

Another condition of approval, Hagel wrote, is “micro-siting of the power line to avoid interference with test operations.” These measures include lowering the high-tower transmission lines in the Northern Extension Area north of the missile range or spacing out the distance of the towers in this section, Heinrich said during the conference call.

Wright, the DOD spokesman, said in his email that micro-siting “involves optimizing the route” of the line so that it “is masked behind terrain features.”

The third condition of DOD approval is “non-interference with [White Sands] operations during power line construction and maintenance,” Hagel wrote.

Hagel also wrote in his letter that SunZia Transmission “has for some time indicated acceptance” of the three mitigation measures.

The sticking point, Hagel wrote, was the burying of the lines near the White Sands Missile Range.

“We have from day one said we want to interfere as minimally as possible [with range operations] in the construction, operation and ongoing maintenance of the line,” Calkins said. “Those will be words we live by.”