Power Pique

Governmental agencies and environmentalists disagree over the expansion of electric power lines.

As the energy wolves circle in Southern Arizona, their hunger to connect with Mexico's electricity grid--and mushrooming power market--has caused fur to fly between state and federal agencies and kept environmentalists priming their legal muskets.

In early January, Tucson Electric Power received Arizona Corporation Commission approval to run a 345,000-volt transmission line to a substation in the Sonoran burg of Santa Ana. The route would dissect remote and biologically sensitive areas of the Coronado National Forest southwest from Tucson and cross lovely Sycamore Canyon near the border.

But while TEP gloats over its success with state regulators, the terms of its triumph might prove the project's ultimate undoing.

One could say the seeds were sown last May in Nogales, during a public hearing before the ACC's Line Siting Committee. The committee evaluates environmental impacts of utility projects and then forwards its recommendations to corporation commissioners.

At the hearing, TEP officials stumbled through a flurry of questions from the committee and audience members. Residents grumbled over the utility's vague maps and about shoddy presentations by its hired environmental consultants.

Nogales hosted the meeting because TEP's transmission line would connect with that town's troubled electricity supplier, Citizens Energy Services. Citizens doesn't generate its own power for the city, but instead imports it along a single 55-mile, 115 kV line from the north. After years of lousy reliability, the utility is now under an ACC order to have at least one more 115 kV line in place by late 2003.

While TEP portrays itself as Nogales' savior, the massive lines it proposes far outstrip that city's needs; obviously, tapping Mexico's energy market is the big enchilada.

But the TEP/Citizens plum was apparently juicy enough for the ACC to bite in January. That hurdle behind it, Tucson Electric now faces federally mandated studies of how transmission lines might impact the Coronado Forest.

Given their druthers, TEP officials probably wouldn't have preferred the forest route, where they face rising opposition from environmentalists and additional government regulations. But if so, the company has only itself to blame for the results of a divide-and-conquer strategy that proved only too successful.

Initially, TEP offered three possible routes for the transmission lines. Two would stretch more or less along I-19, and a third--the so-called "Western Route"--slices through the Coronado's core.

The I-19 paths raised the specter of power lines snaking right above Green Valley and scarring vistas from Tubac to Amado. Not surprisingly, this notion sparked ferocious opposition by residents, many of whom conceded that the western route--through the forest and away from communities--might be the lesser evil.

Environmentalists felt otherwise, fearing permanent damage to the forest lands and harsh impacts upon wildlife living there.

However, friends of the forest still have an ace up their sleeve, says Brian Segee of the Center for Biological Diversity: Under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, projects on federal land require extensive analysis with regards to their ecological and archaeological impacts. Findings must then be submitted for public comment before a final document is released.

To meet these requirements, TEP was allowed to hire its own consultants (pre-approved by the U.S. Department of Energy) to create a draft version of the environmental impact statement. Segee predicts the company will "release the draft in the hottest part of the summer, when no one's around." Indeed, according to DOE officials, TEP is expected to release the impact statement in the steamy month of July.

Few are more eager to have a peek at that draft than John McGee, supervisor of the Coronado Forest. According to a letter released by his office to the Weekly, McGee is already a little unhappy with the status quo--and a bit miffed with the ACC's January decision.

In the snippy February 19 letter to the commission, McGee asserts that "As Forest Supervisor ... it is my responsibility to document and disclose environmental effects of a proposed use ...

"It appears to me," McGee continues, "that the Commission's January 3, 2002 action is either premature and/or circumvents federal jurisdiction and my authority. I suggest we meet and discuss the situation."

It's not clear whether such meetings have taken place, and when asked to comment, Jerry Conner, the Coronado's point man on this project, said he preferred to "let the letter speak for itself."

But Heather Murphy, spokeswoman for the ACC, defended the commission's decision. "As I recall, the chairman's office sent a letter (to McGee) in response, because the Coronado Forest was notified as one of the land holders, and there was quite a bit of publicity," she says. "The gist (of McGee's letter) was that he wasn't in the loop. But there was information to the contrary, and he had been properly notified."

"Part of the letter intimated that the land was going to be run over without his participation or knowledge. But the utilities have to work with (Coronado) now that they have a routing."

That work could prove dicey, since all of TEP's bets are currently hedged on approval of its western route by the Coronado--and a disgruntled John McGee. When TEP spokesman Steve Lynn was contacted for comment on this situation, he abruptly hung up.

To Brian Segee, this conundrum reveals a broken regulatory system. The ACC decision "sidestepped a really contentious issue by putting it in the laps of the Forest Service," he says. "It's forcing them into a situation where they have one approved route by the state, and it happens to be the route through the most sensitive Forest Service lands.

"We think the process should be revised," he says, "so that the ACC is not making a decision on a route that involves federal lands until the federal agency has made a decision on those lands."

Either way, the timing of the Corporation Commission's decision was convenient: Only a few weeks later, TEP chief Jim Pignatelli and the company's government relations honcho, Larry Lucero, joined Gov. Jane Hull on a friendly junket down to Mexico. In those gracious climes, they glad-handed with high officials from the administration of President Vicente Fox in what one Hull aide calls just "a mission to expand trade opportunities."

"She's neither here nor in Mexico advocating any particular project," says James Ahlers, Hull's Special Assistant for Mexico Policy. "She's simply advocating an opening of the energy market."

Asked whether Hull might have directly or indirectly placed pressure on the Corporation Commission to approve the TEP route--and boost her own free-trade profile in Mexico--Ahlers is indignant. "I don't think it's her place to discuss this project with them," he says. "Obviously they're going to go through their normal regulatory procedures and make a decision."

But to Brian Segee, the timing raises a few questions. "With friends like that, it's hard for companies like TEP to go wrong," he says. "I think there are much larger forces (than the ACC) at work here, and I don't see the commission going out on any sort of political limb to thwart these binational proposals."