Arizona Daily Star

A bill that could remove a big procedural hurdle for new interstate power lines through Arizona is praised by supporters as a way to streamline what they see as a tedious, expensive review.

But opponents say the bill could strip local residents and officials of the ability to ask hard questions about big projects such as SunZia, a 480-mile, 500-kilovolt line proposed for Southern Arizona. They say those questions could include the power line's potential impact on views, neighborhoods, public health and the environment.

Many of SunZia's proposed five alternative routes are controversial because they would go through natural areas such as the San Pedro River Valley or Aravaipa Canyon, rural communities such as Picture Rocks or Cascabel, or through Tucson.

SunZia's proponents, however, tout their project, which would start in Lincoln County, N.M., and end in Pinal County, as a way to deliver large amounts of renewable energy from solar and wind generating plants that are still unbuilt across the Southwest.

The bill, pending in the Arizona House, would:

• Let the elected Arizona Corporation Commission decide whether to first put such a line proposal through the commission's Line Siting Committee, an 11-member appointed body - or let the five-member commission take it on solo.

• Direct the Corporation Commission to OK anything the federal government approves when it comes to an individual power line, although the siting committee could impose conditions on the line's construction.

• Allow, but not require, the commission to hold public hearings on such a proposed power line.

Currently, any proposal for a line of more than 115 kilovolts of power must be heard by both groups. The siting committee's reviews are typically more time-consuming and thorough.

The committee has six months to make a recommendation. The commission has 75 days to make a decision. The committee allows interested parties to intervene in a case and cross-examine witnesses.

The time to review a project is of the essence in the debate over this bill. It has cleared a committee and is expected to reach the House floor in the next few weeks. A Senate committee cleared an earlier version, exempting interstate power lines from the Line Siting Committee review. That bill was later killed.

The proposed SunZia power-line project sits at the heart of the debate, since a lobbyist for the company proposing SunZia is one of the bill's major backers.

"We consider it a regulatory-reform measure ... in an age where we are woefully short on transmission capacity and generation capacity," Stan Barnes, a former legislator and now a lobbyist for Southwest Power Group LLC, the Phoenix company that would build SunZia, said at a March 21 House Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. "The appropriate but bureaucratic systems that we have set up sometimes are duplicative and unnecessary."

With the commission having wide latitude, an applicant "is in a vulnerable position, willing to say yes to almost anything as long as they can go forward," testified Barnes, who in the 1980s chaired the same House committee.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has held 14 public meetings on SunZia and is scheduled to release a draft environmental-impact statement in July.

Frank Pratt, chairman of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in an interview that he has heard from officials of the Phoenix utilities Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service that it can take anywhere from six to 10 years to get a major power-line proposal approved from start to finish.

When Pratt sat through Line Siting Committee meetings involving a major line proposed for Pinal County a few years ago, he found it a long, tedious process in which many people essentially stood up and said the same thing over and over.

"People always want power and they don't want it in their backyards," he said.

Opponents take strong issue with the idea that the state's reviews duplicate the feds' work and say the state committee's detailed hearings are essential to protect the public interest.

Chester Phillips, co-chair of a volunteer group representing the Cascabel area near the Lower San Pedro River that has raised concerns about SunZia, said that he is aware of a recent proposed Salt River Project power line in the Phoenix area, covering much less ground than SunZia, in which 17 public hearings were held by the ACC siting committee.

"If this bill passes, it will be the local citizens of Arizona who will be put in a very vulnerable position," Phillips said.

William Dunn, who represents two state natural-resource conservation districts east and north of Tucson, testified that the provision requiring ACC to approve a power-line proposal picked by the feds will let the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service decide what's good for Arizona.

"I'm all for regulatory reform, but it should decrease federal authority, not increase it," Dunn testified.

House Energy Committee member Bruce Wheeler, a Tucson Democrat, said the bottom line is that "this bill diminishes public input."

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.