February 16, 2015

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Environmental Attorneys Jim Sanderson and Sam Lofland Quoted in Law Week Colorado Article: SunZia Project Takes Time, Energy

This article was originally published by Law Week Colorado in their February 16, 2015 issue. Click here to view this article as a PDF.

By Tony Flesor

On multi-year projects, each milestone can turn into a celebration.

For the past six years, Ryley Carlock & Applewhite attorneys have been counsel to SunZia, an energy transmission project that carries 515 miles of extrahigh voltage wiring through New Mexico and Arizona and has required jumping through several regulatory hoops and leaping a few political hurdles along the way. Most recently, the project has been approved by the Department of the Interior, but there is still more work to come.

The SunZia project will use wind turbines to take advantage of the strong, steady wind in New Mexico and send the power to Arizona, which has a renewable energy requirement it seeks to meet.

Law Week Colorado covered the project in 2012 when it was put on President Barack Obama's fast-track, "Rapid Response Team For Transmission." It is the first major project moving forward on the list. As of Jan. 25, the project has approval from the Department of the Interior for right of way.

"It is a major milestone, but it took a lot of work and a lot of good faith from everyone inside and outside," said Jim Sanderson, a partner at Ryley Carlock and counsel to SunZia.

Sanderson is working as part of the main team, which involves Sam Lofland out of the Colorado office.

In the past two and a half years, the project has had environmental impact statement approval after an extensive comment period and managed to get route approval for the transmission lines, despite fierce opposition from the Department of Defense, among other parties.

Sanderson said the primary objection was from the Department of Defense, which was seeking to keep the New Mexico land clear around the White Sands Missile Range, a large strip of land used by New Mexico military bases for training missions, many of which involve aircraft. After several meetings with the DOD and the Bureau of Land Management, the Secretary of Defense, in May 2014, said there were four contingencies.

"The important final shoe to drop" was an agreement to bury five miles of transmission line in three locations through New Mexico, about 750 miles from the White Sands area.

Sanderson said one of the most significant legal hurdles was spending 60 days on discussions to come up with a hold-harmless clause with the military to relieve each group of responsibility if damage came to either the SunZia project or the military's test aircraft.

Additionally, the project has run into environmental concerns along the way. Sanderson said there were line-siting issues to work through, concerns from land owners and Native American tribal members in the area looking to protect culturally significant areas and environmental groups looking to protect endangered species.

When negotiating through tribal lands, Sanderson said they had to be careful to make sure the routing was accurate. "The main alignment of line was arranged to minimize disturbing those things, but nevertheless, when you're out in the field putting a road to where a pole will be sited, you'll be disturbing it, so you have to make sure there's not a cultural artifact you'd stumble across."

Sanderson said the environmental issues also required extensive use of experts and transactional work with commitments for following procedures to protect species.

"Sometimes that required moving alignment away from a critical habitat. Other experts concluded the impact, we'd avoid impact by staying away on a seasonal basis."

With routing completed, the project will cover 515 miles in total: 183 miles are on BLM lands, 220 have right-of-way through state lands and 112 miles are on private lands.

Although the project has the greenlight from the DOI, it next must clear approval from New Mexico and Arizona state land boards.