A Practical Solution

Power line hopes hang on team Bush.

It was barely mid-morning, and already, Marc Spitzer had a bee in his bonnet.

The blunt, banty-rooster chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission obviously didn't relish yet another parley with Tucson Electric Power honchos. Well-groomed and smarmy, The Energy People were now angling to sidestep their ACC-imposed December deadline for upgrading electric service to Nogales, Ariz.

Stretching 66 miles between Sahuarita and Nogales, TEP's new line would provide a boost for Nogey, which has suffered from past blackouts. The power lines would also get Tucson Electric closer to its Big Dream, which is stringing those lines onward across the border, linking to northern Mexico's precarious power grid 60 miles south. Regional power companies such as TEP increasingly see the borderland import-export market as a fattening cash cow--and one heartily plumped by the Bush administration.

Nor did Spitzer likely savor yet another scolding from Santa Cruz Valley retirees who'd fought this unsightly project since the late 1990s. And the commish was probably weary of those damned environmentalists, forever arguing that 200 huge power poles in the Coronado National Forest between Tucson and Nogales would scar the landscape and scare wildlife silly.

But what really got the chairman's goat on this blustery winter day was a federal attitude reeking mightily of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Co. In particular, the administration's energy plan, now stalled in Congress, would grant federal agencies the power to override state commissions such as the ACC in siting power lines.

This is no small caveat. As a local deal-maker once observed, "There are two things harder than hell to site anywhere. One is prisons. The other is power lines."

Either way for Spitzer, the early-December deadline hearing in downtown Tucson offered a perfect chance to vent. The room fell silent and the TEP suits fidgeted as he swung around in his chair, leaning pointy elbows on the dais. "One of the billion parts in that (energy) legislation" he said, implies a "failure of state regulators to approve necessary transmission lines and upgrades, to the degree that public health and safety throughout the country is imperiled."

"I find this very ironic," he said, noting that the ACC had long ago approved the Tucson Electric project, and today, TEP was seeking an extension because of the slow-moving federal environmental reviews.

To Spitzer's right, Commissioner Bill Mundell then echoed a sentiment heard from state leaders across the country. "I don't think most Arizonans want federal bureaucrats ... deciding where transmission lines are built in the state of Arizona," he said, "based on the premise that somehow state commissions can't make those tough political decisions to site transmission lines."

Not everyone agrees. For example, when details of the Bush policy began surfacing two years ago, energy industry officials were elated. According to the policy report, local opposition plagues power line projects, and state decision-makers "often do not recognize the importance of proposed transmission facilities to the interstate grid."

But the states were flabbergasted, and U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham attempted damage control at a National Association of Governors conference in 2001. He assured angry governors that federal authority would be invoked only "as a last resort."

The governors responded by recommending that the NAG officially oppose "pre-emption of traditional state and local authority over siting of electricity transmission networks."

Meanwhile, in the Southwest borderland, Abraham's "last resort" may be resorted to increasingly often--and could eventually benefit the TEP project. "There's clearly some strong-arming going on," says Sharon Buccino, senior attorney for the National Resource Defense Council in Washington, D.C. "What's particularly outrageous is that the Bush administration selectively promotes states' rights and local control when its agenda is served. But this provision in the energy bill is completely inconsistent with that. It allows the federal government to trump whatever the states are doing, with the intention of making things happen faster."

But at the December ACC meeting, Commissioner Mundell pointed out that federal energy mandarins don't have such a great record themselves. "I think it's important to look historically at what has happened," he said. After the 1970s energy crisis, "authority was taken away from the states to site gas pipelines. I guess my thought would be, if you like how the federal government handled the (Kinder Morgan) pipeline situation here in Tucson, you'll love what will happen if Congress passes this energy legislation and gives (this additional) authority to the federal government."

Fortunately, much stretching of the imagination was not required, as TEP attorney Ray Heyman strolled up to the podium. A veteran in the trenches of power litigation, Heyman wasted little time summing-up President Bush's energy plan, and why utility companies are drooling at thoughts of its passage.

"There are two answers," for how this project will be completed, Heyman told commissioners. "One is the legal answer, and one is the practical answer."

The practical answer? Why, schmoozing with the Big Boys, of course. "We've had a conversation with federal agencies, to try to get them to come to a consensus," Heyman said, and "we've contacted the White House Task Force" for assistance.

Still--and regardless of the current quite cozy relationship between energy companies and Team Bush--there remains a niggling fact: Federal environmental reviews, required by the National Environmental Policy Act, are currently slowing projects like the TEP power lines. But that may not be a problem for long, says the NRDC's Buccino. "The administration may be talking about streamlining the NEPA process, but all their actions aim to completely avoid it. The energy bill provides a good example of that."

"This is really a broad agenda to cut the public out of the process, and it's consistent with this administration's very imperial approach."

Which brings us back to the sad paradox of Marc Spitzer, and the ACC's increasingly pointless slogging through this Brave New World of power politics, George Bush-style.

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