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Arizona residents continue to fight the SunZia project. Here's why

A transmission line that’ll carry wind energy from New Mexico more than 500 miles through southern Arizona continues to generate controversy — even though work on it has already begun. The SunZia project will connect those New Mexico wind farms to the Western power grid; most of that energy will ultimately end up in California.

Wyatt Myskow covers environmental news in the Western U.S. from Phoenix as the Roy W. Howard investigative fellow, and has been following this story. He joined The Show to talk more about the project and why some Arizona residents continue to try to challenge it. 

Full conversation

MARK BRODIE: Wyatt, are we talking about what we generally think of when we think about power lines, basically a pole in the ground with some wires on top of them here?

WYATT MYSKOW: Yes, but like much bigger, like the big giant ones you see along interstate highway. They are huge. They're over 100 feet tall. They're, they're pretty massive.

BRODIE: OK. And how much energy are we talking about here?

MYSKOW: The wind farm itself is 3500 megawatts and the transmission line itself can transmit 3000 megawatts of that.

BRODIE: And how much energy is that? Like, what, what would that power?

MYSKOW: Yeah, it's around roughly around 3 million homes or so. We just took it from homes, obviously, some of that energy is going to go to industrial activities as well. And it varies depending on a ton of factors, but millions of homes essentially in California will get this energy.

BRODIE: So we're talking about a lot, a lot of energy here.

MYSKOW: It's, it is the biggest renewable energy project in the United States. If you count the transmission line and the, the the wind farms themselves.

BRODIE: So why is the the route that these lines are proposed to be taking, why is that the route that, that proponents and the company behind it have chosen?

MYSKOW: So, one thing to note is that this thing has already begun construction, SunZia is being built as we speak. It's over 500 miles. It is a huge project. What's specifically very controversial right now and it still remains controversial is roughly 50 mile segment of it that runs through the San Pedro Valley in southern Arizona, which is kind of eastern of Tucson. The San Pedro Valley, just for some perspective, is the second most ecologically intact landscape left in Arizona behind the Grand Canyon. Most of the route the transmission line is taking is along existing freeways already.

It diverts through off of kind of these existing pathways that have already been kind of degraded, what we call landscapes that have been touched by humans. Essentially, it diverts from that path and goes to the San Pedro Valley. And that's because when they were permitting this thing, initially, there's going to be a power plant kind of in this area that it was going to connect to. And also because this was the cheapest and kind of most environmentally and human friendly way of building this thing, you know, the one proposed route was going to cut through Tucson, but it would have required having to move some low income communities and households to build this power line, which obviously, you know, the federal government was not a fan of. And so the San Pedro Valley was chosen as the spot.

But the San Pedro Valley, as I mentioned before is incredibly intact. It's you know, it's the Galiuro and Rincon mountains are right there. It's the San Pedro River, which is the last undammed river in the Southwest, flows through there. It's just a really important place and for local tribes, it's also, you know, this is their historic homelands and it's filled with culturally and historically significant sites that are still to this day, very important to them. And so this route has remained controversial throughout this entire process that's been going on for over 15 years.

BRODIE: Yeah. Well, so and there have been efforts, as you've reported, there have been efforts over the years to change the route or have it not go through the, the San Pedro Valley. Are those efforts ongoing? Given, as you say, this line is under construction now.

MYSKOW: Yeah, and that's why this thing is so complicated is that there's actively efforts to divert kind of plans while construction is happening. And so there are two lawsuits currently, one at the federal level, one at the state level, seeking to pause construction and re-evaluate some things. At the federal level. Tohono O'odham, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Center for Biological Diversity and Archaeology Southwest have sued the Bureau of Land Management, which is the federal agency that was in charge of permitting this project, over what they argue not properly evaluating this project's impacts on the cultural resources in the San Pedro Valley. That decision was shot down in the one court, they're appealing it right now to the, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Another case is, is at the state level, which is suing the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates state utilities in the state of Arizona. And that case argues that, that was filed by a resident of San Pedro Valley, arguing that this was approved by the ACC, the Arizona Corporation Commission, in 2016. His argument is that this project has fundamentally changed in the eight years since that project, this project was approved then. At the time, it was going to be two lines, two big transmission lines and there's going to be a lot more benefits for Arizona. That is no longer necessarily the case, only one line is currently being constructed, obviously the permit for the other one still exists and it can be constructed, but it's not actively being constructed. There's no money for it to be constructed. So that's not happening. And his case essentially argues that this case, or this transmission project has fundamentally changed since it was permitted and needs to be re-evaluated.

BRODIE: So the company that is building this, have they said anything about trying to take care to preserve cultural sites or to be as minimally environmentally invasive as they can be?

MYSKOW: Yeah, this thing went through, you know, it did go through, there are plans in place for, if you do find a site, what do you do? There's, they've done a ton of work along this entire route to mitigate some of the concerns for wildlife or historical resources, all these different things. They're confident that, you know, they've done their research, they've done what they need to do. They've met all the federal requirements. And this will have minimal impacts to the San Pedro Valley and to the cultural resources, if any at all. And so it's, you know, but they, they, they have responded to that and they feel they're, you know, they're within the rules of the law.

BRODIE: It seems like there's a certain irony here that, you know, there's such a push for green energy, renewable energy. And here's a project that is looking to produce a pretty significant amount of it. But at the same time, it's not without its environmental potential, environmental consequences.

MYSKOW: Yeah. Well, there already are environmental consequences because it's a building through this valley. And that's kind of what's made this such a complicated case and why it's gotten so much attention and scrutiny is because as you mentioned, you know, we're transitioning away from fossil fuels which are, you know, the predominant cause of climate change, to these more renewable forms of energy, these greener forms of energy. But they are not without their consequences. And you know, in the San Pedro Valley, a lot of these residents, the people that live there, they moved there because they wanted to be one with nature, they want to live amongst nature, take care of it and you know, get away from kind of how we live here in Phoenix, right?

BRODIE: Not looking at power lines, for example.

MYSKOW: Not looking at power lines all day and protecting the environment. And you know, now you have this line coming in over this really intact landscape with, you know, an energy, you know, this project, like many renewable projects, it's kind of being framed as a way to save humanity and, and continue, you know, having the way of life that we have in a cleaner, more sustainable fashion. But at the same time, you're cutting down saguaros, you're chopping out tops of mountains, you're building, you know, new power lines through here. It just one of those things that's inherently controversial and many of the folks who live in that area, they've told me there's no project that could really come through here and they would be OK with because again, this is one of the last intact landscapes in the country. And to sacrifice it when they're not getting any of the benefits of this project.

You know, the energy is not going to power their homes, it's gonna power someone's in LA. And so they just, one of those things, that's how do you rectify that? How do you solve that? It's the question that many projects are trying to face. And this one has been kind of poster child of, of very just how do you, building over these landscapes and having communities continually push and push and push back and just not find that middle ground. This is the renewable energy project that's kind of defined that issue.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.