SunZia Southwestern Transmission Project officials plan to reapply for a permit with the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission after their location request was denied at a hearing last week in Santa Fe.
SunZia’s application was denied by a 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Patrick Lyons recusing himself because of a friendship with SunZia project manager Tom Wray, the Albuquerque Journal reported Friday.
“SunZia is assessing the decision and will review the final order citing deficiencies in the application and exhibits filed in the case, and will re-file an amended application in the coming months,” SunZia spokesman Ian Caulkins said.
The ruling drew praise from residents who are concerned about the impact of the project on a number of issues ranging from private property rights, property values, the safety of migratory birds and other endangered species, the local economy and activity on White Sands Missile Range.
“We are pleased NM PRC is conducting due diligence on the SunZia project and working in the interest of New Mexicans. We understand SunZia will re-apply and we will remain fully attentive and engaged through the re-application process. We are still requesting the BLM conduct an amended EIS (environmental impact statement) to address the current proposed route,” said Cecilia Rosacker, executive director of the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust.
“I was very impressed with the Public Regulation Commission Hearing Examiner's professional and thorough evaluation of SunZia's permit application to them,” ecologist Gina Dello Russo added. “I am also relieved that the examiner's evaluation held weight with the Commission and respect them for their impartial finding. Those of us working to find solutions to the current issues with the SunZia powerline will hope that the Bureau of Land Management now follows their example of thorough evaluation and begins the process of a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the project. I believe this is appropriate for a complex project like SunZia and necessary due to the limitations and omissions in the original work and the requested amendments by SunZia. The public is also allowed to engage the BLM and SunZia through this process and review and comment on the completeness of their updated information and hopefully an improved public process through a supplemental EIS.”
“We are pleased with the decision,” Socorro County District 2 County Commissioner Martha Salas said.
Salas was among those in attendance. Socorro County is among the intervenors.
“It gives us more time to get expert witnesses,” Salas said. “Of course, it gives them more time, too.”
The Commission followed the recommendation of Hearing Examiner Ashley Schannauer, who recommended denying the location request. He did recommend SunZia’s request for the determination of a 200 foot width of right of way for each of the two proposed transmission lines be granted.
SunZia has two options now that the PRC has rejected the location request. Following Schannauer’s recommendations, PRC attorney John Bogatko told The Chieftain SunZia has the option of submitting a new application addressing the concerns set forth in the hearing examiner’s recommended decision. SunZia could also, if it chooses to do so, submit a new application requesting a new route, Bogatko said.
SunZia could run into issues with its agreement with the Department of Defense about lines running through the White Sands Missile Range call-up if it chooses to change the route, Schannauer’s recommendation stated this summer. SunZia might be forced to reach another agreement with the Department of Defense.
Issues raised by Socorro County property owners Oliver and Kathy Lee, who were among the intervenors, played a role in the PRC’s decision and were cited in the ruling.
Schannauer raised concerns about whether SunZia will be able to obtain rights of ways through eminent domain should property owners refuse to reach a settlement.
Salas said landowners had been threatened with having their land taken through eminent domain, but said Schannauer pointed out SunZia did not currently have that authority. Schannauer’s recommendation said SunZia had to go through the Renewable Electric Transmission Authority, but expressed doubt whether it would be granted.
“They (the Commissioners) told Sato (Oliver) Lee that if he didn’t want to give them a right of way, they would have to change their route,” Salas said.
According to the Schannauer’s recommendation, SunZia had obtained rights of way over private property for 73.75 miles of the 90 miles it needs, leaving 16.25 miles (18 percent) of the private rights of way that it needs uncertain. Most significant, two of those property owners have intervened in this case and actively oppose the project. Together, they own 14.5 miles of the private rights of way SunZia needs.
Schannauer also raises concerns about whether project plans satisfy issues raised about the impact on cultural sites such as the Salinas Pueblo National Monument, migratory birds such as Sandhill Cranes and endangered species along the route.
SunZia Transmission LLC is requested a final order be granted that approves the location of two 500 kilowatt (kV) transmission lines and facilities in specified areas in Lincoln, Socorro, Sierra, Luna, Grant, Torrance and Hidalgo counties; determines widths necessary for the project (approximately 400 feet, but may be up to 1,000 feet in some areas) and other matters that may be appropriate for the project. The approximately 520-mile project is expected to cost $2 billion. According to the PRC filing, lines in New Mexico will extend approximately 320 miles, with 134 miles crossing federal land, 96 miles crossing New Mexico State Trust Land and 90 miles of private land.
It will transport electricity generated from wind farms in the eastern part of the state to a hub west of Phoenix that would serve customers in Arizona and California.