Expediting Electrical Transmission Lines

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President Obama’s plan to fast-track the permitting and construction of major electrical transmission line projects – including one in Arizona – is touted as a way to create jobs; increase capacity and reliability of the nation’s electrical grid; and accelerate the growth of domestic clean energy. Find out what the plan means for Arizona from Kris Mayes, former Arizona Corporation Commissioner who is now in charge of the Program on Law and Sustainability at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, and Sandy Bahr, Director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter.

Ted Simons: President Obama wants federal agencies to work together, and work faster to build electric transmission lines across the country. The goal is more jobs and more reliable electricity. But critics say that putting transmission projects on a fast track could compromise environmental safeguards. Here to tell us what they think about the plan is Kris Mayes, a former Arizona corporation commissioner who's now in charge of the program on law and sustainability at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. And Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club. Good to see you both here.
Kris Mayes & Sandy Bahr: Thank you.
Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us. This is a pilot program to expedite this process; this includes a transmission line across parts of Arizona. True?

Kris Mayes: Absolutely. This is an effort by the Obama administration to try to speed along the construction of new transmission that would be designed to not only bolster the reliability of our grid, but also to deliver more renewable energy across the west and the entire United States. So they've identified seven different projects, one of which is right here in Arizona, it's a project called SunZia, and they're going to assign people to ride herd on the federal agencies that are responsible for permitting these projects. And to try to speed things up a little bit.

Ted Simons: The administration says it will modernize the grid, make for more reliable power, and reduce blackouts, what's the problem here?

Sandy Bahr: Well, I think they should have been more careful about selection of the projects. This project is hugely controversial in Arizona, and expediting, if it means having the proper reviews and not setting aside important protections, that's not an issue. But we're really concerned because the proponents of this program have a history of trying to go around local people. They tried to get a special law passed at the state legislature this year to exempt them from going through the power plant and line citing committee, which is Arizona's process for citing. And this proposed line would go through some very sensitive areas if they get the citing they want. There's the Aravaipa Canyon area, the San Pedro, many people, agricultural interests, conservation interests, the military, a broad range of people have huge concerns about this line. So I think they need to be very careful about what they're doing.

Kris Mayes: In defense of the company, I think this is an incredibly necessary transmission line, that is going to be designed to take wind from New Mexico and solar from Arizona and potentially deliver it to California. With regards to SunZia, it's my understanding it's already gone through exhaustive scoping processes and I don't think they're talking about cutting any corners. I think what they're talking about is trying to get this project and in particular those agencies that might be a little bit slow in processing the permits going a little bit. And quite frankly, if we're going to be serious about doing something about carbon in this country, reducing carbon emissions, about renewable energy and getting our renewable energy economy going, we have to have projects like this. And frankly, this is one of them.

Sandy Bahr: We disagree. There's no guarantee this line will be carrying renewable electrons, if you will. That's one of the things that have been clear, they can't do that. They can't legally do that. And so -- there's a lot of skepticism about whether a number of these lines will end up carrying traditional dirty coal and other types of resources. So there are no guarantees on that. And even if the line is necessary, there's no reason to cite it in a way that it's destructive of important areas. And in Arizona, if you're -- the Sierra Club is very selective. We are very selective. We look at what the impacts are. This is one we've looked at carefully as have the people of southern Arizona, and it has huge issues, whether it's the Air valley, or San Pedro, those are all very important areas, and instead of looking at existing routes, they want to cut through what's really some amazing land.

Kris Mayes: And I don't think we're here just to talk about SunZia. This is an effort that's going to be nationwide. But I think you're seeing the problem, which is that every time we come up with a transmission line that's important for the state or for the country, somebody is going to object. And what we're seeing is a lot of these projects are getting bogged down inside agencies, and I think that -- it's interesting that we have a Democratic president who's making a proposal to speed up these projects and to streamline regulation. It shows you that we have a problem on our hands when a Democratic president is saying; we need to cut down on some of the regulation and speed up some of these processes.

Ted Simons: Same question, but different angle here. When is expediting the process, when does it go too fast?

Kris Mayes: Let me tell you, the process is not going too fast. I don't know too many people, who are involved with energy in this country in any respect, especially renewable energy developers who think the process is going too fast, it's going too slow if anything. I'll give you an example.

Sandy Bahr: Funding is what's slow --

Kris Mayes: No, it's really not. Now let me complete, hang on. I'll give you a real life example. When I was an Arizona corporation commissioner we had a critical transmission line that was going to run from Tucson to Nogales that was stopped by a single United States forester, one woman, who was responsible for one forest in the state of Arizona, who said, not through my forest. And the entire state of Arizona, in fact including environmental groups had said, this is OK, but one forester stopped it. And that's what I think President Obama's certain trying to get at. To say, OK, look. If that forester has a problem, let's go talk to her. Let's have all the agencies get together and resolve these issues in a quicker manner.

Ted Simons: Same question, different angle -- when is the process too slow? When is it just -- when is it basically slow going it and hoping it all goes away?

Sandy Bahr: Well, I think that if they have done their due diligence and have given the public an opportunity to review, this transmission line is big. It crosses 460 miles. And I am going to focus on Arizona, because that's what I focus on. But it crosses 460 miles through New Mexico and Arizona, that is a lot of land. And if they would look at existing corridors, existing transportation corridors, that makes it go a lot faster. But if they're going to go across such a large area and look at some of the most amazing land, biologically diverse areas in our state, then that needs due diligence. They need environmental review and analysis; they need to give the public an opportunity --

Ted Simons: Can those particular aspects be sped up a little bit? Be expedited?

Sandy Bahr: They could be. But our concern is, considering the history of the proponents of SunZia, it will be used to cut people out. That's what they tried to do already at the state legislature.

Kris Mayes: There's no evidence --

Sandy Bahr: No, no. At the state legislature they did that.

Kris Mayes: There's no evidence that this particular project has cut any corners. It's already been through two years of scoping Sandy. So I'd --

hang on.

Sandy Bahr: So at the legislature -- if they could, but --

Kris Mayes: Hang on. Hang on. It's already been through two years of scoping. We're nowhere near being finished with this critical transmission line, which could deliver thousands of jobs to the state of Arizona and to New Mexico. We're talking about tens of thousands of jobs that could be created through this initiative of the Obama administration to try to streamline these projects.

Sandy Bahr: Let me tell what you they did in the beginning.

Ted Simons: We got to make it quick. Last point goes to you. You've got to make it quick.

Sandy Bahr: They did all their scoping in the beginning primarily in New Mexico. They had one meeting in Arizona. They have given Arizona short shrift on this. Everyone needs to have a voice in it. Yes, it can go faster but it needs to protect the resources as well.

Ted Simons: We've got to stop it there. Good conversation. Thank you both for joining us.

Sandy Bahr: Thank you.

Sandy Bahr:Director, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Chapter; Kris Mayes:ASU professor of Law and Sustainability at the Sandra Day O'Conner College of Law, former Arizona Corporation Commissioner;

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