Cascabel Working Group
A grassroots organization concerned with the cultural and ecological integrity of the lower/middle San Pedro Valley
(For an explanation of acronyms, see below the background section)

November, 2009

SunZia Transmission, LLC, submitted a right-of-way application to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for two parallel 500 kilovolt (kV) high-capacity transmission lines to be constructed between south central New Mexico (Socorro area) and south central Arizona (Eloy area). According to a project newsletter prepared by EPG, Inc, a consulting company under contract with BLM to research the environmental issues associated with construction and maintenance, the purpose of these lines it to " transport electricity generated by power generation resources, including primarily renewable resources, to western power markets and load centers."

The lines will be 460 miles long and will cross public (Federal), state (AZ State Land Department), and private property. BLM has the responsibility to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to provide a detailed analysis of the potential environmental impacts and a range of reasonable alternatives for the public lands they manage. Since the management decisions will also affect private lands, comments were accepted regarding concerns beyond the boundaries of public lands. The official comment period ended June of 2010, but the BLM has informally told us that they will still accept comments (see our links page).

SunZia will use economic and environmental factors to determine their final route for the transmission lines. The towers will be spaced about every 1400’ and be about 160’ in height in a ROW up to 1,000’ wide. There will be access roads for future maintenance and dense or tall vegetation that could produce enough smoke to cause shortages in the event of wildfire would be controlled.

One of the currently proposed alternative routes enters the San Pedro River valley at the Winchester substation near the road to Willcox (approximately between the Benson Narrows and Dudlyville), goes north through Cascabel and crosses the San Pedro river near Redington, San Manuel, Mammoth, or the confluence of Aravaipa Canyon. Another proposed route transverses the Steward District north of Wilcox in upper Aravaipa, and crosses the San Pedro River near San Manuel, Mammoth, or the Aravaipa confluence.

Posters of the Biological Resources and Cultural and Paleontological Opportunities and Constraints on display at the scoping sessions (now available on the BLM SunZia Website) depicted the San Pedro Valley as being a “low” area of concern. Further, the maps depict a north-south route through the valley designated (before 1972) by the Arizona Corporation Commission as a utility route with a permanent Certificate of Environmental Compatibility Corridor.

The certificate of environmental compatibility (CEC) for the single 500-kV line down the San Pedro Valley was issued in 1976 as part of a long-term comprehensive plan to distribute power from the Palo Verde nuclear generating station. CEC’s were first mandated by the legislature in 1972, and at that time no time limits were placed on them. Nowadays CEC’s for transmission projects are limited to 20 years. They must be renewed once that time limit is reached. The requirements for environmental and cultural studies needed to obtain a CEC in the 1970’s were far less stringent than they are today and do not meet today’s standards.

Potential environmental issues the EIS analysis will address include impacts to these resources: land use and recreational, visual, biological (including special status species), cultural and historical, floodplains and wetlands, and air, soil, and water quality.

You can learn more about this project by entering “sunzia southwest transmission lines” into your internet search engine. You can also visit the SunZia  BLM pages on the project.

Some Acronyms and How They Come into Play

ACC - Arizona Corporation Commission and the Line Siting Committee.

The Arizona Corporation Commission oversees many activities other than power plant and transmission line siting. From the ACC’s website: “In most states, the Commission is known as the Public Service Commission or the Public Utility Commission. Our Commission, however, has responsibilities that go beyond traditional public utilities regulation. These additional roles include facilitating the incorporation of businesses and organizations, securities regulation and railroad/pipeline safety.

Regarding the Line Siting Committee, it was created by the legislature to “provide a single forum for the expeditious resolution of all matters concerning the location of electric generating plants and transmission lines in a single proceeding to which access will be open to interested and affected individuals, groups, county and municipal governments and other public bodies to participate in these decisions.

The Committee makes the recommendation to the Commission on whether to issue a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility for a power plant or transmission line.

BLM - Bureau of Land Management.

In the case of the SunZia project, the BLM is the federal agency which will carry out the NEPA process. Why the BLM and not something like the Arizona Lands Department? The reason for this stems from the interstate nature of the project. (If a project is within a state, the BLM does not oversee the project as a whole.)

Per NEPA, the BLM requires an environmental impact statement for any project that crosses its land, however short a distance. Then before the project can be finalized it must be reviewed the Arizona Line Siting Committee. As it turns out, the environmental impact study being carried out for the BLM contains essentially the same information that the Line Siting Committee requires. They, in turn, will use the information to make a recommendation on issuing a certificate of environmental compatibility.

What is the relationship between the private company SunZia, LLC, and the BLM? From the Citizens Guide:
Frequently, private individuals or companies will become involved in the NEPA process when they need a permit issued by a Federal agency. When a company applies for a permit (for example, for crossing federal lands or impacting waters of the United States) the agency that is being asked to issue the permit must evaluate the environmental effects of the permit decision under NEPA. Federal agencies might require the private company or developer to pay for the preparation of analyses, but the agency remains responsible for the scope and accuracy of the analysis.
So in our case, SunZia had to apply for a permit to cross BLM lands. [Now SunZia has to cross State lands and private lands, as well]. What's confusing is the flow of money. SunZia has to pay the BLM to prepare the EIS. The BLM has then hired a private company, EPG, to do the actual work. In a way this sets up a potential conflict of interest because SunZia, LLC is effectively paying EPG, which sets up the temptation to influence the outcome in SunZia's favor.

CEC - Certificate of Environmental Compatibility. This certificate is issued by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) and is the result of the state of Arizona’s equivalent of an environmental impact statement. A CEC issued by the ACC is required for power plants above 100 MW and high-voltage transmission lines that are 115-kV and above. The Commission’s Line Siting Committee evaluates the environmental and social impact studies that a utility or transmission company must complete and makes a recommendation to the Commission on whether to issue the CEC. A CEC is basically a legal permit to proceed with the project.

CEQ - Council on Environmental Quality. Taken from :
The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) coordinates Federal environmental efforts and works closely with agencies and other White House offices in the development of environmental policies and initiatives. CEQ was established within the Executive Office of the President by Congress as part of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and additional responsibilities were provided by the Environmental Quality Improvement Act of 1970.
The CEQ does not oversee the NEPA process per se but develops environmental initiatives for the executive branch of government.

CWG - Cascabel Working Group. Our mission statement: CWG serves as a voluntary community organization to educate governmental organizations and individuals within the government, non-governmental organizations and individuals within those organizations, and the public about environmental, archaeological, cultural, recreational, agricultural, economic and other features of the San Pedro River Valley and its tributaries with a focus on the Middle San Pedro River Watershed.

EPG - Environmental Planning Group. This is a private company which has been contracted by the BLM to prepare the EIS for the SunZia project. The company's website indicates that they have prepared or are preparing many EIS's for various transmission line projects, most (all?) contracted by the BLM.

FERC - Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The FERC is responsible for regulating the wholesale sales of electricity in interstate commerce---i.e., its price structure. An application was made to the FERC showing SunZia's proposed financial arrangements. Investors in SunZia want to see that the FERC will approve their proposal before going forward with their investment.

In the FERC filing, the ownership structure of the Project was revealed and it goes as follows (quoted statements are from the filing):
NEPA - National Environmental Policy Act--the "Magna Carta" of environmental laws. This is the law which requires governmental agencies to consider the possibile environmental impacts of their actions. It requires that the relevant agencies create an Environment Impact Statement (EIS) before proceeding with their project (when environmental impacts might be significant). The NEPA law also created the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

For more info, read the 2007 Citizen's Guide to NEPA

NRCD - Natural Resource Conservation District. In particular, the Redington Natural Resource Conservation District and the Winkleman NRCD are also concerned about the potential San Pedro route of the SunZia project. They have invoked a special legal status in connection with the BLM called "Coordination". This requires that the BLM attend certain meetings that they call. The NRCD is centrally concerned with the potential environmental impacts (such as erosion and sedimentation, damage to archaeological sites, etc) of the SunZia project, and coordination is supposed to assure that they are intimately involved in the BLM's SunZia decision making process.

MMR Group - - the parent company of the Southwestern Power Group, which owns ~80% of the SunZia project

SWAT - SWAT – Southwest Area Transmission Subregional Planning Group SWAT is a part of the WestConnect Transmission Planning Group that covers the southwestern U.S. and is responsible for assessing future transmission needs in predominantly Arizona and New Mexico. From WestConnect’s website: “Southwest Area Transmission (SWAT) is comprised of transmission regulators/governmental entities, transmission users, transmission owners, transmission operators and environmental entities. The goal of SWAT is to promote regional planning in the Desert Southwest. The SWAT regional planning group includes transmission planning subcommittees, which are overseen by the SWAT Oversight Committee.”

SWPG - - the Southwestern Power Group. A company whose principal is Tom Wray and has roughly an 80% interest in SunZia