Relying on federal officials to certify that proposed transmission lines and power plants meet environmental requirements would help the Arizona Corporation Commission consider such projects faster, a state lawmaker contends.
“All we’re trying to do is streamline the process,” said Rep. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande.
Pratt, chairman of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced the legislation as a strike-everything amendment to SB 1517, sponsored by Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson.
While federal agencies already review projects involving federal land, when state, municipal or private land is involved a company must also apply for approval from the Arizona Power Plant and Transmission Line Siting Committee, which is under the control of the Corporation Commission.
The committee, made up of appointed members and representatives of state agencies, reviews applications, holds public hearings and certifies whether proposed projects meet environmental and ecological requirements before sending them to the commission for a vote.
Under SB 1517, a proposed transmission line or power plant project would have to meet federal guidelines under the National Environmental Policy Act before the Corporation Commission votes on the it. The commission would retain authority over routes and locations and could hold public hearings, though hearings wouldn’t be required under the bill. It also could refer applications to the line-siting committee for review.
Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, who voted against the measure in Pratt’s committee, said SB 1517 is intended to allow SunZia, a company seeking to build transmission lines across southern Arizona, to bypass the current siting process.
“Lobbyist and lawyers from one corporation want to get rid of a state process that is fair, efficient and has always worked,” he said. “It is not in the interest of Arizona to let federal bureaucrats make a decision that previously would be made by people much closer to the issue here in Arizona.”
Pratt acknowledged that SunZia suggested the legislation, but he said it would help all companies as well as the commission.
“What we are essentially trying to do is create a regulatory reform and try to expedite the process,” he said.
SB 1517 aims to speed up the review process by giving the Corporation Commission, should it not act on an application for any reason, 90 days to send it to the line-siting committee. Commissioners would have a total of 180 days to act if they request that staff members conduct further reviews.
Melvin, who didn’t return two phone calls, introduced a similar bill that would have exempted interstate transmission lines from going through the line siting-process. It won committee approval but didn’t make it to the Senate floor.
SB 1517, as amended, won party-line approval from the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It was awaiting action by the Rules Committee before heading to the House floor. The Senate would have to concur with the amendment or resolve differences in a conference committee.
Gary Pierce, a Republican who is the Corporation Commission’s chairman, said the bill offers commissioners a way to speed up the review process. However, he said he neither supports nor opposes the bill.
“This isn’t precluding the commission from doing what they normally do,” he said. “It’s simply an extra tool for us that would save time if we felt like the federal process had been robust enough.”
In a letter sent to state legislators, Commissioner Paul Newman, a Democrat, said he opposes the bill because it would add confusion to the application process and is unnecessary.
“The bill is an end-around the normal line-siting process and gives developers who are building interstate lines a specialized process that limits public input,” he wrote.
Messages left at a phone number listed on SunZia’s website and with Stan Barnes, a lobbyist who represented the company before Pratt’s committee, weren’t returned.
Barnes told the committee that the current state process for approving the construction of transmission lines and power plants can take anywhere from six months to several years, which is time-consuming and expensive.
“The bureaucratic systems we have set up sometimes are duplicate and unnecessary,” he told the committee. “All this bill does is allow the commission to advance something forward.”
Marshall Magruder, former energy commissioner for Santa Cruz County, said he worries that the bill doesn’t make public hearings mandatory.
“Big projects should allow the local people the opportunity to have a say,” he said. “The people have the right to stand up.”
Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said the bill unnecessarily reduces public input.
“There is supposed to be an opportunity for the public to participate, and this would diminish that significantly,” she said.