After a Bureau of Land Management official finished his 45-minute presentation on the huge SunZia Southwest Transmission Project at a recent public comment meeting in Tucson, Ariz., he denied attendees permission to speak on the issue -- written comments only, forms are over on the tables by the wall.
In the split second that BLM's project director, Adrian Garcia, adjourned the session, a bold man named Peter Else stood up in the tense, angry high school auditorium atmosphere and said to his hundred or so fellow citizens, "I have an announcement. We've got another hour and a half here, and we know how to conduct a peaceful public meeting. So, why don't we stay and have our own public comment meeting?" Nobody got up to leave.
The BLM contingent realized what had happened, scurried away with the microphone to the tables by the wall and rudely made as much noise as it could. The crowd dug in their heels and made noise back.
The ad hoc meeting soon got down to its peaceable assembly, and the noise abated, but the tension did not. The BLM had brought armed guards.
Peter Else is not a hotheaded rabble-rouser; he's a retired University of Arizona administrator and a board member of the Winkelman Natural Resource Conservation District. He lives near the tiny town of Mammoth, Ariz., (pop. 2,167), notable mostly for the tranquil beauty of the high-biodiversity San Pedro River Valley -- and a church named God's Filling Station in a recycled gas station and auto repair shop.
Else spoke first, laying out his District's problems with the right-of-way application of SunZia Transmission LLC and the BLM -- lead agency in performing the project's Environmental Impact Statement. The BLM offered the District "cooperating agency" status, but the District demanded "coordinating government" status under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
As Else explained it to me, the project consists of a 530-mile-long corridor with two parallel, extra-high voltage electric transmission lines -- no power generation plants -- installed on 135-foot towers every 1,200 to 1,600 feet along proposed routes that include some existing corridors in the San Pedro River Valley.
What turns Peter Else livid is the Energy Development Forecast for the project. "SunZia touts the absurd claim that 81 percent to 94 percent of the energy facilities predicted to be attracted by these new lines will come from renewable resources -- wind and solar farms," Else said.
"I think it's a green-washed marketing scheme saying it's needed to reduce dependence on fossil fuels." Else alleged. "In fact, the only approved project is a huge natural gas-fired generating plant near Bowie, Ariz."
Bill Dunn, rancher and chairman of the Winkelman NRCD, told me that the District filed a complaint under the Information Quality Act to correct "the deceptive characterization of SunZia as a green project." After more than a year of administrative hassles, Dunn told me, the BLM dropped the renewable energy claims from the Draft EIS statement of "Purpose and Need" -- but based 170 pages of economic and cumulative effects analysis on the challenged claims.
Retired Navy systems engineer and power line gadfly Marshall Magruder took his turn by giving a seminar on how to influence the Arizona Corporation Commission in line siting.
Another speaker said, "Why not use the existing Interstate 10 corridor instead of plowing up untouched ground?"
After everyone with something to say was done, a woman said, "We need a public hearing!" Everyone agreed and swarmed to the tables to draft a petition for Director Garcia, who promised to personally hand it to his supervisors.
This crowd is not a bunch of NIMBYs howling against all power lines -- they just want them in the right place.
Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this column stated erroneously that BLM's Garcia did not respond to inquiries. In fact, he called shortly before press time and provided substantive comments for this column.