No Power to the People

Sen. Al Melvin sponsors a bill that would squelch public input on transmission lines

When former New Mexico state Sen. Tom Wray spoke in front of the Arizona State Senate's Committee on Commerce and Energy on Feb. 16, the politician turned energy executive was ironically the first to point out why some folks are nervous about a new bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Al Melvin.

"At one time in 1993, I was a member of the New Mexico State Senate, and one of my concerns was on matters like this, (here is an) opportunity for the state to be forced to simply accept a federal outcome without due process at the state level," Wray said.

That's what SB 1547 does: It would eliminate some of the state-oversight process of power-transmission-line utility projects. These projects go before the Arizona Power Plant and Transmission Line Siting Committee before heading to the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Wray happens to be the project manager for SunZia, a project that would build a series of high-voltage transmission lines carrying renewable wind energy from New Mexico into Arizona.

Wray—whose project would benefit greatly from Melvin's legislation, which moved forward after a 5-1 vote in the committee—called the current process that SunZia has to go through "regulatory double jeopardy," because it forces companies to go through public scrutiny through a federal process—and then again at the state level.

"I'm not sure you create any additional information. ... The point is, I don't think the public is better served in duplicate regulation," Wray said.

Those statements are misleading, according to Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. At that committee meeting, she told lawmakers that although her organization is thrilled to see Arizona legislators understanding the importance of federal environmental law, "we don't see that it is redundant with Arizona's line-siting process."

The line-siting process is used by the Arizona Corporation Commission to make a final decision on transmission-line projects. The Line Siting Committee is made up of 11 members—five representing various state offices, and six appointed by the ACC. The committee was formed in 1971 after legislators discovered that existing laws didn't allow enough opportunities for individuals and groups to comment on transmission-line projects.

Bahr told the Tucson Weekly that those who spoke on behalf of the bill took advantage of the fact that some legislators don't know anything about the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process or the state Line Siting Committee process.

During the NEPA process, according to Bahr, there is no approval or denial of projects, although there is analysis and evaluation of impacts, especially on federal public lands.

During the state line-siting process, anyone from the public can "intervene in that process, and you can ask questions of the applicant that you wouldn't be able to ask. It gives everyone a chance to probe further. And it usually is a fairly quick process," Bahr said.

A group of neighbors in Picture Rocks, west of the Tucson Mountains in Avra Valley, are counting on the state line-siting process to give them an opportunity to present issues they have with proposed transmission towers that could have a detrimental effect on their desert community.

In Albert Vetere Lannon's living room, he and two other neighbors explained that part of the SunZia project is slated to go through parts of Avra Valley, as well as areas near the San Pedro River to the south.

Chris Banks has lived in the area since 1971; neighbor Tom Allen moved here in 1992, and Lannon retired here about six years ago. Their work with other neighbors involved in Citizens for Picture Rocks has brought in a health clinic, resolved fire-department disputes and cleaned up roads.

If the proposed transmission lines go through—which could be 400 feet wide and more than 160 feet high—Lannon said they could lose what they've worked hard to achieve: a community that a Pima County Sheriff's Department deputy described once as "boring."

They took that as a compliment.

"We're tired of the Avra Valley being considered a dumping ground," Lannon said, pointing at the Central Arizona Project water canal that goes through their community, as well as the Tucson Water ponds that are used to regenerate the city's water table.

In Arizona, state lawmakers aren't known for giving up authority to the federal government—so what is this bill about?

Wray made it clear in his testimony that going through another regulatory process can be costly for investors. Perhaps he was thinking about another time when he led a project through the Line Siting Committee—in 2001, for the Toltec Power Station LLC project.

The project would have developed four power generators in Casa Grande, and an electricity plant on 215 acres between Picacho Peak State Park, the Sawtooth Mountains and the Ironwood Forest National Monument. While the project was approved by the Line Siting Committee, the project was denied by the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Bahr said that if Melvin's bill passes, there won't be a public record established to help members of the Arizona Corporation Commission make informed decisions.

"The Line Siting Committee establishes the record—and a more complete record than NEPA. It's almost a quasi-judicial process, to some degree, because applicants are under oath. ... It's an important part of the process," she said.

Russell Smoldon, a Salt River Project representative, spoke at the committee hearing in favor of the project—but he noted that it's impossible to ignore public involvement.

"What we find when you are building large infrastructure where people live (is that) people will have a problem with that," Smoldon said.

The Salt River Project, which contributed $600 to Melvin's last campaign, is also a SunZia investor, along with Tri-State and Generation and Transmission Association, Tucson Electric Power, SouthWestern Power Group, Energy Capital Partners and Shell WindEnergy.

Norman Meader, of the Cascabel Working Group in the San Pedro Valley, has been studying the SunZia project closely. He and his neighbors feel there is an alternative route that needs to be discussed, especially because of the high volume of migrating birds in the San Pedro Valley that could be threatened by the high-voltage transmission lines. The line-siting process needs to remain so these issues are brought before the Arizona Corporation Commission, he said.

"I understand commissioners will still have some say, but the line-siting process is where the public can provide the needed input," he said.