Monday, January 26, 2015

The SunZia Transmission Project Should Facilitate Renewable Energy Development and Bolster National Security

By Amelia Schlusser, Staff Attorney

The southwestern United States is one step closer to constructing a new transmission line that would substantially increase renewable energy development in New Mexico and Arizona. On Saturday, January 24, U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Sally Jewell announced that she has approved a Record of Decision (ROD) from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) authorizing the SunZia Southwest Transmission project. The SunZia project is a proposed 515-mile transmission line that would transport power from northeast New Mexico to southeast Arizona. According to the project’s proponents, the new line will facilitate substantial renewable energy development in the state. The SunZia line is projected to carry at least 3,000 megawatts of mostly wind- and solar-generated electricity. Secretary Jewell noted that this transmission capacity would provide enough renewable energy to power one million homes while reducing carbon emissions by 4.5 million metric tons per year.

In addition to displacing the emissions from 890,000 cars annually, the transmission line’s construction and renewable energy development would provide much-needed jobs for New Mexico and Arizona. The transmission project is expected to create 6,000 construction jobs and 100 permanent jobs. More significantly, the line will open the door to dramatic renewable energy development with the potential to create 40,000 jobs.

“The SunZia Project will help unlock the abundant renewable energy resources in the Southwest, creating jobs and bringing reliable, sustainable power to a growing corner of our country,” said Secretary Jewell. "It's an opportunity really for the state to make an investment in a future that is not tied to commodity prices, the vagaries of oil and gas prices and the boom-and-bust cycle that is so prevalent in that industry," the Secretary explained to the Associated Press.

The National Security Debate

While the SunZia project has tremendous potential to expand renewable energy development in New Mexico, the project’s proposed route has attracted harsh criticism from U.S. Representative Steve Pearce (R-NM). According to a recent Greenwire article, the Congressman fears that the line will compromise national security. Pearce argued that the project’s route near the White Sands missile range “‘will dramatically impair’ the missile range’s mission ‘to test defense systems critical to the protection of our nation and troops.’”

SunZia’s proposed route does not cross the federal White Sands missile range (WSMR) itself, but it does cross the WSMR’s Northern Extension Area, a network of private land and leased public land that the Department of Defense (DOD) often evacuates prior to conducting missile tests in the WSMR. In response to Army concerns that the high-tower line could disrupt testing and training in the range, the BLM worked closely with the DOD to mitigate the project’s impacts. SunZia’s developers ultimately agreed to bury the power line segments that run through the Northern Expansion Area.

The DOD ultimately did not object to the SunZia project, and Katherine Hammock, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, asserted that the project makes America stronger. “It allows for the more rapid uptake of vital renewable energy, stimulates jobs, and preserves mission capability at White Sands Missile Range, one of the most unique training and testing facilities in the world," said Assistant Secretary Hammock.

However, the DOD/BLM compromise did little to pacify Rep. Pearce, who issued a statement opposing the project the day before Secretary Jewell approved the ROD. “It appears that, with one stroke of a pen, Secretary Jewell will permanently damage our national security,” wrote Pearce.

Pearce’s opposition raises a compelling question regarding the nature of “national security” and the actions we take to protect it. Assuming that Rep. Pearce’s doom-invoking contention is even nominally accurate (which is highly unlikely), the threat that the Congressman fears should be outweighed by the benefits the new transmission line can provide. Which scenario realistically presents a greater threat to the security of our country: one in which federal missile testing is temporarily and moderately restricted, or one in which one million homes continue to rely almost exclusively on fossil fuels for electricity?

Evidence suggests that continued reliance on fossil fuels poses the far greater threat. Last year, the Risky Business Project issued a report on the economic impacts of climate change, which projects that the U.S. will lose billions of dollars in the next 5 to 25 years due to property and infrastructure damage, agricultural losses, and increased energy costs resulting from climate change. In October, the Pentagon released a report warning that climate change presents an immediate threat to national security. Aside from emitting mass quantities of greenhouse gases, fossil fuel power plants contribute to both air and water pollution that threaten human health and damage the natural environment. Our existing, fossil fuel-dependent energy system presents a very real, very substantial threat to our national security. Projects that enable us to transition away from our current system towards a more sustainable energy grid may therefore have a far greater impact on our long-term security than modern weaponry. 

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