White House keeps highly anticipated MIT study on major power line under wraps — for now

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

The results of a much-anticipated federal study that could determine the fate of a multistate transmission line project deemed a top priority by the Obama administration are being shared this week with congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., but have not been released to the public at the request of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
CEQ asked congressional staff members at a formal briefing yesterday not to release or publicly discuss the results of the study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory that evaluated strategies to build the 515-mile-long SunZia Southwest Transmission Line Project without interfering with the mission of a nearby Army weapons testing range, according to sources who attended the briefing.Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a supporter of the New Mexico-to-Arizona power line project, requested the study. Heinrich in September 2013 asked the Defense Department to use the federally funded MIT lab to study possible solutions to resolve concerns that the transmission line would compromise the mission of the Army’s White Sands Missile Range — the nation’s largest military installation, covering 3,200 square miles in northeast New Mexico.The results of the study, sources say, suggest there may be little that could be done to keep a section of the proposed line that crosses restricted airspace — referred to as the missile range’s Northern Extension Area — from interfering with weapons testing and low-flying military aircraft.

Heinrich today issued a statement acknowledging his office was briefed on the study and that it offers some “pragmatic solutions to allow SunZia and [the missile range] to mutually exist.”

The meeting on the MIT study yesterday with congressional staffers was considered a “classified briefing,” according to sources. Heinrich said federal regulators should “issue the record of decision” on the project.

“SunZia should get built,” he said.

Phoenix-based project proponent SunZia Transmission LLC is expected to be briefed today on the MIT study’s findings.

A CEQ spokeswoman said she could not comment on the study or yesterday’s briefing.

But Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), whose district includes the White Sands Missile Range, is expected to hold a teleconference later today with reporters to discuss the MIT study’s findings and to call on the project’s backers to amend the line’s route or take other actions to avoid the Northern Extension Area.

Pearce has publicly supported the SunZia transmission line project but has echoed DOD’s concerns about the high-tower transmission lines interfering with the missile range.

Though the section of line at issue would not touch any of White Sands’ 2.2 million acres of withdrawn federal lands — only the restricted airspace — the Army has warned that the power line could be at risk of being struck by an errant missile or other weapons system under development and testing at the range.

One possible solution is to bury the 35-mile section of the power line that crosses the missile range’s Northern Extension Area.

But Ian Calkins, a spokesman for SunZia Transmission, said burying 35 miles of the line would be economically and technically unfeasible.

“It’s a nonstarter,” Calkins said. “It’s one thing if you’re talking about 1 mile or less, but at 35 miles, hypothetically we don’t think it can be done. Even if it were just a cost issue, you could say, ‘Let’s figure a way out, let’s get the funding.’ But add the technical obstacles to it, and it’s just forget it. Just forget it.”

Ongoing debate

The MIT study and the secrecy surrounding its findings are the latest development for a project that’s been under review by the Bureau of Land Management for years.

Heinrich hailed DOD for its decision in November to direct MIT to conduct the study as a “pragmatic approach to identify measures that would allow for both the missions at [White Sands] to continue and for the construction of the SunZia transmission line” (Greenwire, Nov. 18, 2013).

But part of the caution for how to handle the MIT study, sources say, is that the White House and the Interior Department must decide what course of action to take next.

The SunZia project was one of seven transmission line projects the Obama administration in 2011 placed on a list of pilot projects that would be accelerated through the federal permitting process. The Rapid Response Team for Transmission, an interagency effort to speed transmission projects, is overseeing that process.

Proponents say the SunZia project is needed to develop huge wind power resources in central New Mexico and, to a lesser extent, solar power in Arizona.

But the White Sands Missile Range is a critical training and testing range. At times, missiles and other weapons can be projected in protected airspace outside the boundaries of the range and circle back onto the range to test, among other things, missile defense systems.

The Army has publicly expressed in formal comments submitted to Interior that an errant missile or rocket could strike one of the high-tower transmission lines — some as tall as 165 feet — with major repercussions for the West’s electricity grid. The line is expected to carry as much as 4,500 megawatts of mostly wind-generated electricity from northeast New Mexico to an electric distribution point near Tucson, Ariz. Once there, it could connect to a larger grid powering metropolitan areas like Phoenix and Los Angeles.

The conflict, if left unresolved, could delay or even kill the power line that has been under federal review for more than four years, project advocates say.

But it also could lead to a sparring match between DOD and the White House, which has made expanding renewable energy on federal lands — as well as the added transmission capacity needed to bring the green energy to market — a top priority and which views the SunZia transmission line as critical to developing New Mexico’s wind resources.

BLM in June released a multivolume final environmental impact statement for the power line project that all but cleared the way for a record of decision to be issued in early September authorizing the project to move to construction.

But a senior DOD official two months later expressed grave concerns about the proximity of the line to the missile range in a strongly worded two-page letter to Neil Kornze, BLM’s principal deputy director.

John Conger, an acting deputy undersecretary of Defense, wrote in the letter to Kornze that DOD “officially objects” to that section of the power line route and appeared to suggest that BLM consider burying that section of the line underground so as not to interfere with the mission of the missile range.

“Our objection is based on our belief that the [final EIS] has not adequately analyzed the significant risks to national security should an above-ground transmission line be constructed across the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) Northern Extension Area (NEA) in New Mexico, and the discovery of substantial new information relevant to the feasibility of burying a segment of the transmission line,” Conger wrote.