Skip to content

Las Cruces Sun-News: OP-ED: SunZia: New Mexico should seize the opportunity

It is no secret that New Mexico is heavily dependent on federal investment. According to the Tax Foundation, New Mexico gets more federal money per tax dollar than any other state. At a time when federal spending is under a microscope and our national debt is increasingly unacceptable, it is critical for New Mexico to look for opportunities to create jobs in the private sector.

Fortunately, one major opportunity is on the horizon. This fall, the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will decide whether or not to permit a major electricity transmission project to move forward in New Mexico and Arizona. SunZia's private investors have indicated a willingness and ability to invest $1.2 billion into the state economies of New Mexico and Arizona. Doing so, according to a study by New Mexico State University and the University of Arizona, would create up to 34,900 private sector jobs in our state. With New Mexico's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate at 6.9 percent, we could certainly use a boost.

Some have argued that the transmission line should not be allowed to move forward due to potential impacts to our military. As a former member of the House Armed Services Committee and a current member of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I fully appreciate these concerns. New Mexico's military installations are home to thousands of our brave men and women in uniform, possess state-of-the-art resources and capabilities, and have unparalleled terrain and airspace.

Since 2009, a number of federal agencies have been debating the best possible route for the SunZia transmission line. I am grateful that several of those routes were rejected because of the conflicts they could have presented to New Mexico's military installations. It is important to note that the current route under consideration is 30 miles north of the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). This area -- known as the northern call up area -- is an area where the BLM, the New Mexico State Land Office, and private landowners have jurisdiction over the land and WSMR controls the airspace.

Since WSMR uses the airspace in the northern call up area, certain mitigation proposals are under consideration there, including lowering the height of the transmission lines, indemnification to hold the Department of Defense "harmless" in the event of damage, and burial of portions of the line. These proposals are being taken seriously and I am confident that the federal agencies involved will reach a solution that takes into account what is economically and technically feasible for both the Department of Defense and SunZia.

Since coming to Congress, I have consistently fought to support the military training, research and development, and testing that occurs in New Mexico, and I will continue to do so. But it is also important to find common ground that does not preclude one national priority over the other when both priorities can be realized, especially when economic benefits are needed and obtainable.

In this case, unparalleled military testing and adding the transmission capacity that will allow us to export clean power to markets in other states are both priorities. White Sands Missile Range is a true national treasure and simply cannot be replicated anywhere else in the United States, and the SunZia transmission line is a transformational clean energy project that can increase our energy independence and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. All the while, New Mexico stands to gain tens of thousands of good-paying construction jobs and a substantial number of permanent jobs.

I have followed the SunZia siting process and it has been deliberate, transparent, and comprehensive. But this isn't just about SunZia: this is about New Mexico welcoming an opportunity to diversify our economy, lessen our dependence on federal dollars, and chart a course for a more prosperous future. Other investors looking at clean energy infrastructure are watching this process closely to see if our state will take a leadership position in this emerging economy. A timely and well-sited decision by the BLM will send the message that we are willing to stand up for a brighter energy and jobs future that will benefit both our state and our nation.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, Democrat, represents New Mexico in the U.S. Senate.