Cottonwood-laced stretches of the San Pedro River are a bird-watcher's Xanadu, home to blue grosbeaks and green kingfishers, Western tanagers and crissal thrashers. But if power-industry honchos have their way, those feathered denizens may soon be dodging 130-foot steel-lattice towers and 500-kilovolt transmission lines.
Still, the success of any such undertaking is only as good as the pitchmen behind it. And in this case, those promoters deserve kudos: The federal government has bought this 530-mile power-line project wholesale, under the guise that it will hook as-yet-nonexistent renewable-energy generators into the grid. The only generator sure to connect is an already-permitted natural-gas plant near the town of Bowie, east of Tucson.
Meanwhile, roughly 90 miles of that line would course through the San Pedro Valley, accompanied by maintenance roads and 500-foot easements.
A federal analysis of the proposed SunZia Southwest Transmission Project marches onward, spearheaded by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and driven by a cast of characters who have tried to sell us many similarly questionable projects in the past.
They include Phoenix-based Southwestern Power Group II, which a dozen years ago was pushing for a 215-acre power plant in the shadows of Ironwood Forest National Monument (they failed), and later a futuristic coal-powered plant in little Bowie that only won permitting after it shifted to natural gas.
Another familiar player is Tucson Electric Power, which not long ago pushed for a habitat-ravaging high-power line through the Coronado National Forest to the Mexican border. That project flopped in the face of public opposition. Today, TEP is an investor in Southwestern Power Group's $1 billion SunZia project.
Numerous calls to Tom Wray, Southwestern's SunZia project manager, were not returned. Instead, I was repeatedly referred to Ian Calkins, a PR flack with the high-powered Copper State Consulting Group, who also failed to return my calls. Similarly, TEP spokesman Joe Salkowski didn't return several calls seeking comment.
Meanwhile, well-placed sources inform me that funding problems could stall SunZia. The project already took a big hit in 2010, when the private equity firm Energy Capital Partners withdrew its 40 percent stake. Since then, speculation has grown that the federal government may be asked to bankroll the construction.
The feds certainly appear to have a powerful interest in this power line, which would stretch from a Lincoln, N.M., substation into Southern Arizona, before swinging around to end at another substation north of Tucson.
In its efforts to boost alternative energy, the Obama administration has included SunZia on a list of seven power projects delegated to the "Interagency Rapid Response Team for Transmission." This team is charged with streamlining the permit process between a multitude of government agencies.
However, critics question this federal focus on SunZia, particularly since most of Arizona's alternative-energy action is occurring hundreds of miles away in the state's western deserts. Just last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the establishment of 17 new federal "solar energy zones" in six states. Two of those zones are in Arizona; one is close to the small town of Quartzsite, and the other is elsewhere near the California border.
At the same time, SunZia opponents argue that the Rapid Response Team approach is rushing the BLM's environmental-review process, and prodding it toward a predetermined conclusion.
Though the agency denies those allegations, it did not hold public forums to discuss SunZia under National Environmental Policy Act requirements, but resorted instead to a series of open-house-type gatherings that seemed to stifle public dissent. BLM officials also refused a request by project opponents to extend the public comment period beyond Aug. 22.
"I think there's a lot of pressure on the BLM," says Mick Meader, of the Cascabel Working Group, a San Pedro Valley organization fighting the project. "We've felt all along that there's been a real push by the Obama administration. They got hooked on SunZia as a renewable-energy project, and they really got behind it."
The result, says Meader, "is that we've been ignored completely."
But in an earlier interview, BLM spokeswoman Donna Hummel said that SunZia opponents enjoyed ample opportunity to air their views. "There have been 22 public meetings. There have been 255 days of public comment. And there have been numerous informational meetings for various agencies, entities and interest groups, including the resource conservation districts through the San Pedro Valley, which appears to be the one area that's most controversial."
But to detractors, the notion of running massive power lines through that bucolic valley remains a travesty—and selling it as a renewable-energy "green" project adds insult.
Those skeptics found traction in an Aug. 13 letter from a group of New Mexico congressmen to Salazar supporting the transmission project. "SunZia is the key to unlocking New Mexico's very high-capacity wind, solar, geothermal and natural-gas resources to generate electricity," wrote Reps. Steve Pearce, Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich. "New development of renewable and natural-gas plants enabled by SunZia will contribute millions of new property-tax dollars to depleted country treasuries."
Indeed, the merits of this project—or the lack thereof—have revealed a schism between environmental groups that want to support renewable-energy projects, while not getting snookered by greenwashing.
For instance, although the Natural Resources Defense Council doesn't outright support SunZia, an NRDC official does call the greenwashing label unfair. "I do think their business model is intended to yield renewables," says Carl Zichella, the group's director for Western transmission.
Still, he concedes that "there's very little you can do to project absolutely what will be carried on any transmission line eventually, because of open-access rules under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission."
Regarding potential impacts on the San Pedro Valley, "I understand that the routing choices can be difficult," Zichella says, "and we need to continue to refine route choices for all transmission lines so they have the least amount of conflict with natural resources.
"I want to be clear: We're not endorsing the project at NRDC," he says. "But I think we also have to recognize that we can't completely avoid all conflicts. At some point, there are going to be some very hard decisions that are going to be made."
But putting a power line through the San Pedro Valley would be a terrible decision, argues Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr. "We disagree with the NRDC on that," she says. "Destroying some of the most-important wildlife areas in the state is not a good trade-off, and it's not a necessary trade-off. Second, there are a lot of reasons to question the renewable aspects of this line. There's no guarantee that there would be any renewables on the line at all."