ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Security concerns about a proposed $2 billion transmission line between Arizona and New Mexico can be resolved, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a letter Tuesday to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that concerns about routing the SunZia transmission project through an area used by White Sands Missile Range could be addressed by burying five miles of the line.
Officials at the southern New Mexico military installation previously said running the transmission line through an area north of White Sands could reduce testing operations by up to 30 percent, potentially threatening national security and resulting in layoffs at the range.
The concerns prompted Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to ask President Barack Obama to ensure the proposed project did not hurt operations at the range, which employs thousands and has an estimated $834 million annual economic impact in New Mexico.
Martinez and others had asked Jewell to find another route or to require the project's developers to bury sections of the line.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., a supporter of the project, said Tuesday's announcement will allow SunZia to move forward and will give New Mexico a chance to diversify its economy.
"White Sands Missile Range is a true national treasure that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else in the United States, and the SunZia transmission line will unlock the state's world-class wind resources for clean energy production and export to hungry energy markets in the West," Heinrich said in a statement.
The 515-mile SunZia project would carry renewable energy from solar and wind projects in eastern and central New Mexico to Western markets.
The Defense Department last fall commissioned a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the line's potential effect on range activities. Hagel noted in his letter that the study confirmed the route as proposed would have an adverse effect.
If the Interior Department and the developer accept his plan for burying some segments of the line, the Defense Department will withdraw its objection to the proposed route, Hagel said.
SunZia officials said Tuesday many details still have to be worked out but they are encouraged by Hagel's letter and the willingness of New Mexico's congressional delegation and others to find a solution.
"Everybody needs to roll up their sleeves, but there is now a path forward to make that happen," said SunZia spokesman Ian Calkins.
According to developers, it's typically 10 to 20 times more expensive to bury high-voltage transmission lines. The extra costs in the case of SunZia will depend on the terrain near White Sands.
Once approval is granted by the federal government, Calkins said there are other permits SunZia would need to secure at the local level. He could not say how soon construction would begin, but the transmission line is expected to be operating in 2018.