Officials study bill’s effects to SunZia

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With an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, passed by Congress May 22, officials with the SunZia transmission line expect to remain on schedule.

The bill would give authority to the Department of Defense to approve certain uses of the Northern Extension Area near White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), a 300,000-acre land mass currently governed by the Bureau of Land Management. The recent amendment to the bill was submitted by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico).

John Strand, a SunZia spokesperson, spoke about updates of the project and addressed questions at the July 22 Socorro County Commission meeting.

In a packet provided to the commission, SunZia provided a letter from the Department of Defense explaining the department has objected to some construction mitigation options of the transmission line, which would have delayed explosives testing and military practices at WSMR.

An alternative option has been provided to the DoD from the transmission line officials that could quell the concerns of the department. These concerns were echoed by Commissioner Martha Salas, who said she did not want to see any delays in testing at the missile range.

An e-mail to El Defensor Chieftain from SunZia officials Tuesday stated the representatives of the transmission line are not making a statement on the amendments made to the bill at this time.

“We are still studying the potential impact on our project,” the e-mail stated. “Everything else is moving full steam ahead. We anticipate receiving a record of decision from BLM shortly.”

As the bill makes its way through the Legislature, SunZia is already looking to make some adjustments to its construction proposal.

“We’re hoping that within the next six months … that this will work for everybody,” Strand said.

The mitigation proposes five miles of transmission lines to be buried within the Northern Extension Area near WSMR.

Some of the additional contingencies of construction of the transmission line contained in a letter from DoD Secretary of the Interior Chuck Hagel to Secretary Sally Jewell would potentially be approved by DoD if “SunZia accommodates the following mitigation commitments:

• hold Harmless mutual covenants;

• close coordination and nonâ€interference with WSMR testing activities;

• micro-siting of tower locations; and

• put lines underground up to three segments accumulating to a total of five miles.”

“Agreement to these terms will allow DoD to rescind its prior objection to the BLM’s Performance and Accountability Report (PAR) and Secretary Hagel encouraged BLM to promptly issue the ROD,” the packet stated. “BLM is conducting an (environmental assessment) to review/assess the environmental impacts of 500 (kilovolt) underground line construction along the BLM (PAR) in their decision making process. Undergrounding SunZia is specific mitigation to national security impacts raised by DoD after the Final EIS was issued.”

Portions of the land within the BLM area have been leased to ranchers, and the potential transfer in authority of the Northern Extension Area have raised some concerns, Salas said.

“They are not happy that they’re trying to switch from DoD from BLM,” Commission Chairman Danny Monette said during the meeting.

The Albuquerque Journal reported last week that Pearce said he had not yet spoken with other legislators and was not sure what the Senate’s version of the bill could be.

The transfer of land authority could make for some significant changes within the county, as DoD sometimes operates under different guidelines than other federal agencies.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions from us as a county, if that (land) is taken from BLM to DoD, we don’t know how that’s going to affect us as a county,” Monette said. “We’re very concerned, also.”

Although there will be some economic benefits for New Mexico, as outlined in the SunZia packet, none of the energy from the transmission line, at this time, is being purchased or used by the state’s power utilities.

“The only thing I can tell you is that’s where the market is – California and Arizona,” Strand said. “California is the one that’s paying the premium on the electricity.”

Strand said in the future New Mexico could divert some of the power to its regions, but they have to be willing to buy into it. Most of the state’s electric energy is purchased through coal refineries and other means.