By Peter Else
The SunZia Transmission project’s renewable energy claims always sounded too good to be true.
In the four years since the project was rolled out to the public, the terms “fossil fuel” or even “non-renewable energy” have been conspicuously absent from environmental review documents published by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Adorned with images of wind-powered generators and solar panels, these documents told a glowing story about a project that will stimulate the development of new energy resources, of which 81 to 94 percent would allegedly be renewable.
BLM documents also stated that the project will likely result in a net decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, will rescue southwestern states from the deadlines of achieving their renewable energy standards, and will provide thousands of green jobs.
The BLM’s contracted environmental firm, Environmental Planning Group, a company that has a long association with the main project proponent, continued to embellish this story in federal documents and BLM presentations many months after evidence was submitted to the oversight agency that directly contradicted these claims, including the only economic feasibility study related to renewable energy transmission that was submitted during the environmental review process.
In the absence of a tax on carbon emissions, it really isn’t rocket science to conclude that this particular project will benefit the energy marketing needs associated with the current glut of natural gas as much as, if not more than, the marketing and transmission needs of renewable energy resources.
How have they gotten away with this propaganda for so long? One of the reasons is that the BLM received support from several influential environmental groups, which gave them sufficient political cover to ignore contradictory evidence that was submitted long before the draft EIS was released.
Overemphasizing renewable energy benefits made it much easier for the BLM to use the most influential periods of the environmental review process to mute critics while appearing to fulfill their bureaucratic directive to keep this project on the fast track to approval.
Selection of a project for fast track status is partly criteria-based, partly political. In this case, SunZia’s project manager, Tom Wray, was successful in soliciting statements of support from several environmental groups and convincing key decision makers in Washington that SunZia was almost a purely renewable energy project.
In testifying before a Congressional subcommittee, Mr. Wray conveniently ignored the first two years of his project’s history, prior to when it was repackaged as a renewable energy project by adding a wind energy appendage to a route that had previously been focused on the resources adjacent to the El Paso Natural Gas Line in the southern part of Arizona and New Mexico.
At this time, there is no compelling economic incentive to build the wind energy segment of the route. Even if it is ever built, the proportion of renewable energy development will come nowhere near its inflated estimate in the draft EIS.
In a recent presentation to the Tohono O’odham Legislative Council, the BLM’s Gila District Director acknowledged that this is the case, but that obvious message has not yet affected actions in the higher echelons of the oversight agency.
To add insult to environmental injury, this project was circuitously routed through both New Mexico’s and Arizona’s major avian flyways and associated wild lands. You could not have chosen a more impactful route though this region if you tried.
And, the proponents have made it very clear that they will not be satisfied with anything other than their original (and least expensive) preferred route, one that bisects the confluence of three designated wilderness areas in the Aravaipa region and violates the BLM directive to co-locate new infrastructure with existing lines or corridors to the highest degree possible among all the route alternatives.
The resulting route looks like a sine wave: rambling from central New Mexico to the southwest, paralleling the Rio Grande flyway for over 100 miles, crossing the Rio Grand near a National Wildlife Refuge, then proceeding westward for 150 miles while siting all three of its intermediate access substations along a major natural gas line, and then cutting to the northwest to avoid following the path of development through Tucson, while instead passing across the Galiuro wilderness zone and the lower San Pedro conservation corridor.
It is astonishing that some environmental groups are still either actively or passively facilitating this absurd situation, particularly since there are more responsible project proposals available in the region for upgrading the grid and developing renewable energy resources.
This situation demonstrates the trend of certain groups placing more emphasis on proving that they are good team players with politically postured corporate project proposals than on using objective third party information to assess the proposal’s environmental costs and benefits.
The motives for the former approach are the subject of great concern within the environmental community. Several of the groups mentioned in this letter are jockeying for position as grand bargainers at the national level.
Which environmental groups have been facilitating the approval of a project that will significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions while introducing a new industrial-scale infrastructure path in our rapidly disappearing wilderness zones? Here is a list of the main project sympathizers, along with some of their contributions to this debacle so far.
First is the Sonoran Institute (SI), based in Tucson, Arizona.
SI’s John Shepard co-hosted an environmental roundtable in 2010 and endorsed the renewable energy claims of the project, on the basis that it was routed through several qualified resource zones and was needed to fulfill renewable energy standards in southwestern states. Recently, Mr. Shepard published a report reinforcing the project’s renewable energy mantle, again mainly following the project’s original marketing strategy to focus renewable energy arguments on resource zones and renewable energy standards.
While the report claims to address market and policy factors affecting demand, it completely ignores previously published economic feasibility modeling for transmission of renewable energy over high voltage lines in the Southwest.
While the report claims to provide unbiased information, it neglected to address the most obvious and influential source of bias, the grossly exaggerated renewable energy development forecast in the BLM’s environmental review documents. Also, while the report claims to use credible sources, it relied on the opinions of SunZia’s project manager to support its weak argument that the project is necessary to meet renewable energy standards, an argument that has long been discredited.
By collaborating in the preparation of this report with the original “team” members of three environmental groups and with three of the project proponents (the project manager and two of the utility partners), and by not considering contradicting perspectives and documentation that had emerged during the NEPA process, the renewable energy justification in this report is a narrowly focused rehash of previous talking points, one that makes a very speculative stretch to come to its conclusions and its press release summary.
Thus, this report suffered from the pitfalls of the groupthink phenomenon. Norm Meader, of the Cascabel Working Group, is currently preparing a comprehensive response to the Sonoran Institute report.
The other two environmental groups acknowledged in the preparation of the Sonoran Institute report follow.
The Wilderness Society (TWS), based in Washington, D.C.
I met Alex Daue, an affable member of TWS’s Denver-based BLM Action Center, at the 2010 roundtable in Tucson. He was the co-host for this event. He had helped to roll out the SunZia project in 2009, along with a rep from WildEarth Guardians (http://www.sunzia.net/documents_pdfs/wilderness_wildearth_support_ltr.pdf).
At the 2010 meeting, Mr. Daue made it clear that he “really wanted to find a route for this project,” even though the only routes he considered feasible were the alternatives that passed through southern Arizona’s last remaining major riparian zone, an important conservation corridor that already contained over 144,000 acres of land in conservation status due to off-site mitigation of infrastructure and development impacts that had taken place in the nearby growth region called the Sun Corridor.
Mr. Daue reasoned that there were marvelous mitigation methods available in this modern world, such as helicopter placement of towers and a cable car type maintenance system that could be suspended from the powerlines’ towers (What?).
However, when it came to discussing why the project was needed in the first place, he did not seem to understand how the proponents could be so confident in claiming that the proposed transmission project would primarily enable the development of renewable energy resources, stating that grid planning is “complicated.”
He tended to defer to John Shepard on this issue. Right then, I realized that despite his enthusiastic desire to find a route for SunZia, this young man didn’t know much more about the project than I did. I set about with others to do some detailed research.
Despite subsequently receiving reams of information that contradict the Disneyland version of the SunZia project, TWS refused to call for the No Action alternative and instead has joined with the other groups mentioned in this section to make their minimum plea for action be a supplemental EIS that would detail mitigation strategies for whatever preferred route is ultimately selected by the BLM (see section IV of their draft EIS comments):
Although TWS and their partners expressed “serious concerns” in draft EIS comments about the relative amount of renewable energy that would be developed, the recent Sonoran Institute report continued to ignore relevant economic feasibility modeling and other contravening evidence that was given to them long before the report was completed.
Given that TWS and partners, immediately following the 2010 roundtable, were involved in coaching the BLM in how to bolster renewable energy credibility in their statements of purpose and need for the proposed project (http://wilderness.org/sites/default/files/Sunzia-Supplemental-Scoping-Comments.pdf), it brings into question the motives and legitimacy of their role in the mitigation issue.
These groups drank too much of the proponents’ Kool-Aid. John Muir must be trembling in his grave.Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), based in New York City
The NRDC’s Helen O’Shea flew into Tucson from her workplace in San Francisco to attend the referenced 2010 roundtable. NRDC was closely associated with TWS in their perceived role to coordinate the SunZia process with the local environmental communities affected by the proposed routes, and I observed that several of the other environmental groups present at this roundtable displayed deference to this status.
As a result, there was very little critical thinking about whether this project was necessary. The agenda was almost exclusively focused on route alternatives. Recently, NRDC’s director for Western transmission, Carl Zichella, stated in a Tucson newspaper that SunZia’s business model is intended to yield renewables.
He added that “…we can’t completely avoid all conflicts. At some point, there are going to be some very hard decisions that are going to be made.”
The NRDC has apparently made their own “hard decisions.” While they cautiously express reservations about the project, they have refrained from directly opposing routes through wilderness zones or calling for the No Action alternative, despite mounting evidence of significant impacts to both climate change and the natural landscape.
This evidence was available to them at the time they made their draft EIS comments. Instead, they joined with the other groups in this section to call for a supplemental EIS that would focus on mitigating impacts to the BLM’s preferred route.
The Other “Partners”
As I have in the past, I once again wrote to the three groups listed above, this time following the release of the recent Sonoran Institute report. They chose not to respond.
If you are interested in this recent letter about their role in supporting SunZia’s inflated renewable energy claims, please contact me, and I will send you a copy.
Additionally it should be noted that there are four other groups that followed the lead of these three, and decided in their joint draft EIS comments to a) cite possible renewable energy benefits from SunZia, b) straddle the fence regarding whether these benefits would outweigh the environmental impacts, c) avoid taking a strong stand opposing the routes through the San Pedro watershed, and instead d) call for a Supplemental EIS that would “at a minimum” simply address mitigation of impacts along the BLM’s preferred route.
It does not matter how much “concern” is expressed in these draft EIS comments.
What really matters is the call for action in these comments, as made during an official comment period. The other groups signing on to the referenced comments are Arizona Wilderness Coalition, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Audubon Rockies, and Western Resources Advocates. The latter two groups are based in Colorado.
Given that most of the individuals signing these comments apparently have very little experience with the the Galiuro and San Pedro wilderness zones, it seems presumptuous for this particular group of partners to “continue to explore the full range of mitigation strategies that may help minimize this project’s environmental and community impacts.”
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Many of us in the Aravaipa region do not understand how an environmental organization can remain non-committal about a project that will, according to the best available third party information, significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions and initiate a chain of significant impacts in major wilderness zones in Arizona and New Mexico.
After the BLM continued to exaggerate renewable energy claims in the draft EIS and in the associated public indoctrination sessions, it should have been clear to any responsible environmental group that the process was rigged.
Assuming that the New Mexico wind segment of the project is even constructed, the best case scenario for renewable energy development on these lines would be a 50/50 mix with fossil fuel resources, an unacceptable situation at this advanced point in the recognition of the causes of climate change.
The worst case scenario is also a distinct possibility, with renewable energy only being developed at a token level, due to current market conditions.
What really confounds me is that all of these organizations continued to straddle the fence or even promote SunZia, when clear and present alternatives are available to achieve the stated objectives of developing renewable energy in a logical manner and upgrading our transmission grid without fragmenting wilderness zones.
The actions of these groups have made it much more difficult to get the oversight agency to consider documents and comments that contradict the prevailing talking points, to make corrections to BLM documents and presentations in a timely manner (or at all), to encourage open and public commenting on the narrative presented by the contracted environmental firm at the BLM’s public meetings, and to avoid the now inevitable litigation by conducting a NEPA process that adheres to the legal precedence of fostering meaningful and informed participation by the public and stakeholders.
By getting too close to the proponents, the first three groups listed above helped to put this project on a fast track to a foregone conclusion. The other groups listed above are playing a significant supporting role.
Now that these groups have given the proponents just about everything they wanted during the most influential portions of the federal approval process, it is not clear what they could do to reverse this damage. If the project is approved, the three lead groups will be remembered as snake oil peddlers, who sold out important environmental values in order to advance ill-conceived political interests as grand bargainers.
While most citizens agree with President Obama’s intent to develop renewable energy resources, his administration made a mistake in putting this particular project on the fast track. These three environmental groups placed more emphasis on political influence than on environmental principles. They did not speak truth to power, and they are on the wrong side of history.
Adding to this sad legacy is the fact that they made their critical draft EIS comments during the hottest year currently on record in North America. The transmission towers scarring the previously undisturbed vista of the Galiuro wilderness zone would become a monument to the gullibility and poor judgement of all the groups involved in these draft EIS comments. These groups will own this project, if it is constructed.
We don’t need to wait until this thing is built to finally figure out that it will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and will not facilitate over 80 percent development of renewable energy resources, and that this industrial-scale infrastructure corridor, along with everything else that follows its new path, will have very real effects on important ecosystems.
Wouldn’t it be a much better bet to focus on projects that don’t have to lie about their climate change impact in order to justify significant environmental impacts on the ground? Responsible environmental groups have responded with a resounding “Yes!”
Among others, these groups include a lot of the locals here in the southern Arizona conservation community, such as Tucson Audubon Society, Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, Archaeology Southwest, Defenders of Wildlife, Cascabel Working Group, Sky Island Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, Pima County Administrator’s Office, Peter Warshall and Associates, and other groups outside of this region whose draft EIS comments I have not read yet.
Two local Natural Resource Conservation Districts have spearheaded a three-year attempt to get the BLM to provide an objective description of the project’s impact on probable energy development and on consistency with local conservation policies.
Also, a local landholding group here in the Aravaipa region, The Nature Conservancy, has recommended avoidance of all lower San Pedro routes, in accordance with their well-documented understanding of the ecological importance of the region, as well as the equally important avoidance of route segments in the middle Rio Grande and Lordsburg Playa, both critical habitats of the sandhill crane.
It now appears that it will take a lawsuit to effectively address the fact that the BLM and others have used a federal environmental review process as a marketing tool to obscure significant impacts on greenhouse gas emissions in order to justify the construction of an industrial-scale infrastructure corridor though the region’s wilderness zones.
Those of us who understand what is at stake, both locally and globally, are keeping a list of the groups that had the integrity to take a stand based upon reliable third party information, not on the marketing spin and the narrow perspectives originating from the proponents.
Despite the profiles in waffling that I have described in this piece, there are many more groups that have demonstrated the ability to look at the available information and be decisive at the right time. Each group’s ability to do this will help determine the future of their reputation and grass roots support, as the greater environmental community strives to address climate change in a responsible manner.
Friends of the Aravaipa Region (FAR) distributes information and opinion to conservation activists in the Southwest, as well as to several media representatives.
We have a two-bit budget. My own current word processor does not include spell check, so please excuse the spelling and grammar mistakes.
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