Said to be one of President Obama's top five renewable energy priorities, the SunZia $2 billion project to string up two giant 500 kv (extra-high voltage) transmission lines through some of the most pristine desert land left in the US was fast-tracked through the BLM and, since some of the swath goes through state lands, was headed for fast-tracking by previous Land Commissioner Ray Powell. Then Aubrey Dunn was elected Land Commissioner.
As the SunZia Railroad Express was rounding what appeared to be its last curve on the track, Dunn brought the whole train screeching to an awkward stop, at least for the moment. This action, which took guts, now puts the spotlight on him: SunZia cannot build on state trust lands without authorization from the Land Office.
Last night Dunn sponsored a citizen's forum (one of several) in Deming, where about 100 New Mexicans, many of them ranchers, gathered to listen to presentations by SunZia Project Manager Tom Wray, BLM environmental coordinator Dave Goodman, and Renewable Energy Transmission Authority (RETA) director Jeremy Turner: all three were proponents for the project, and each one, in subtle ways, wittingly or not, conveyed "it's a done deal, folks, get on board, we're just going through the motions here." That backfired.
After a few polite comments in favor of the project by local citizens mostly suggesting jobs in poor counties justified their support for it, the negative comments began. One after another rancher stood up; some chastised the fast-track, non-transparent decision making that characterized the process since it began six years ago; others regretted the environmental damage being wreaked on behalf of out-of-state investors; others lamented the profits would leave the state, with no income stream for the land trust fund. Frances Williams, from Las Cruces, questioned the future market for the electricity, the use of taxpayer money for a private venture, and our lack of knowledge of who the investors were behind the screens--she got one of three spontaneous rounds of applause. One rancher said the five-miles projected to go underground (at White Sands Missile Range) would entail digging four trenches to lay the cable, a five-foot concrete wall over the cable, and a twenty-six foot wide road for monitoring the electric activity below. Many expressed disgust that the apparently "done-deal" decisions were made in Washington with no serious effort for input until it was too late. Some looked straight at Dunn as they made these comments, or addressed him directly.
An environmental group (click here) in Arizona (The Cascabel Working Group) has been tracking this project, which they assert is the brainchild of a power company in Baton Rouge (Southwestern Power Group) that wants to be able to sell excess energy at its Bowie power plant in Arizona. SWPG sold it to Obama since, according to the plan, wind and solar power generated in New Mexico will supplement the gas-powered plant. Proponents have already spent about $1.3 million in lobby money.
Senators Heinrich and Udall are said to be for it, Rep. Pearce is against it. When was the last time two Democratic Party tree-hugging politicians opted for an environment-damaging project funded by out-of-staters, while a lizard counter-baiter from way back sides with the tree-huggers? There must be something more here than meets the eye. Follow the lobby money? Obamacharm? The public needs to know a lot more about this project before the loco-motivated fast-tracking engine steams up again to hand over state land to a for-profit group that offers New Mexico little and hides behind a not-transparent process. A good start can be found in Cascabel, whether you love trees or not.