SANTA FE — U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, trying to broker a way for a $1.2 billion electricity transmission line to be built in New Mexico, says the Department of Defense should use a research laboratory to evaluate security concerns that White Sands Missile Range has with the project.
In a letter sent this week to Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense, Heinrich suggested that the expertise of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory should be utilized to find a means for the project to proceed.
Heinrich said he hoped that the lab would "examine potential changes to test protocols that would allow DOD to adapt to the presence of a new transmission line."
"As you know, Lincoln Laboratory has a long history of creating innovative solutions to complex problems involving our nation's radar systems and air- and missile-defense technology," Heinrich wrote in the letter. "...Lincoln Laboratory is well-suited to examine the complex testing profiles for missions at White Sands Missile Range and propose mitigation measures to allow missions to continue and allow for construction of the transmission line."
A Democrat from Albuquerque, Heinrich has been the member of Congress most publicly supportive of the proposed SunZia Southwest Transmission Project.
It would traverse much of New Mexico and end in southern Arizona. The project is controversial in both states.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-Hobbs, said he was concerned that SunZia's preferred route would weaken national security by interfering with training missions on the northern extension of White Sands Missile Range.
Pearce said he encouraged SunZia executives as far back as 2010 to design a route that would not conflict with military operations.
But the company says it would have to kill the project if its preferred route is rejected by the Bureau of Land Management. The time and expense of a new environmental study would make it impossible to proceed, said Tom Wray, SunZia's project manager.
Wray said SunZia would make accommodations to avoid conflicts with low-flying military planes on training missions.
For instance, he said, SunZia was willing to reduce the size of its towers from 130 or 135 feet to 90 feet, even though this would mean greater expense because more towers per mile would be needed.
Wray had expected BLM to decide this week whether it would accept SunZia's preferred route. But Heinrich's letter seeking help from Lincoln Laboratory to allay the military's opposition is an indication that a decision may not be imminent.
Under the BLM's final environmental impact statement released last spring, SunZia's high-voltage transmission system would start in Lincoln County, N.M. The project would cover 515 miles in all, ending in Pinal County in southeastern Arizona.
The company says its lines would transport solar and wind power, capitalizing on New Mexico's abundant natural resources to provide electricity to Western population centers.
In Arizona, conservation groups oppose SunZia's plan. They say its transmission lines would cause environmental harm to the San Pedro River Valley.
Norm "Mick" Meader of Tucson also says the number of construction jobs the project would create had been greatly exaggerated.
SunZia, using economic studies from New Mexico State University and the University of Arizona, said more than 42,000 construction jobs would be created in the two states, 24,000 in New Mexico.
But Meader says the projections include jobs that would occur because of spending of wages, and that they are global, not just in New Mexico and Arizona.
SunZia has numerous supporters in New Mexico, including many local governments. They include Luna, Hidalgo, Grant, Sierra, Torrance and Lincoln counties and the city of Deming. All of them could gain jobs from construction of transmission lines and renewable energy power stations.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe Bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.