By Miriam Raftery January 24, 2009 (San Diego's East County)--In the last days of the Bush administration, two federal agencies gave a parting gift to Sempra Energy. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission designated a vast swath of San Diego's East County as a federal energy corridor, paving the way for the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to approve Sempra's controversial Sunrise Powerlink project one day before George W. Bush left office. For construction to commence, however, the U.S. Forest Service (a division of the U.S. Department of Agricultural) must grant approval for the high-voltage power lines to run through Cleveland National Forest, raising the possibility that President Barack Obama's administration could intervene to halt Sempra's plans.
Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the California Supreme Court to issue a stay halting the $2 billion project, CBC and Sierra Club have asked the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for a new hearing, and Lakeside residents express shock upon learning the Powerlink is slated to cross the El Monte Valley and El Capitan Mountain.
Sempra and its utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, do not expect the challenges to be successful and say Sunrise will still open in 2012, Reuters has reported. "This action ... can only serve to delay development of renewables in our region, which is counter to state policy," said Sempra spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp. http://www.forbes.com/afxnewslimited/feeds/afx/2009/01/23/afx5959810.html
Channel 10News interviewed Lakeside residents who expressed outrage upon learning from SDG&E contractors sent to survey the area in late January that 100-foot-tall high-voltage towers are planned for their scenic community: http://www.10news.com/video/18553209/index.html.
In a letter sent to President Obama http://yubanet.com/california/Schwarzenegger-Sends-Letter-to-President-E... ), ( Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the President to give priority to "establishing clear policy within the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies to prioritize renewable energy project development and transmission on federal lands" and to requiring the U.S. Forest Service to expedite the permitting and general plan amendments necessary to complete the Sunrise Powerlink transmission project just approved by the California Public Utilities Commission.
On January 20th, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawssuit alleging that the California CPUC violated requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act ( CEQA). http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2009/sunrise-powe... CBD is asking the California Supreme Court to issue a stay halting construction of Powerlink pending further environmental review.
In addition, the Utility Consumers Action Network (UCAN) has filed a request to the CPUC for rehearing the Sunrise case today.
"We question the legality of proposing a BLM Plan Amendment for Eastern San Diego County Resource Management Plan in the FEIS/EIR for Sunrise , a separate project document, to accommodate the new utility corridor," Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group and founder of Backcountry Against Dumps, told East County Magazine. "My non-profit Backcountry Against Dumps will be filing suit against the BLM's Eastern San Diego County Resource Management Plan and the Record of Decision for that plan. We hope to file by the end of the month. This should impact the new Sunrise utility corridor." Tisdale added, "It is our position that BLM violated numerous federal regulations and their own procedures when they downgraded Boulevard's McCain Valley Cooperative Land and Wildlife Management Area to Visual Resource Management Class IV from Class II. That unwarranted downgrade in zoning allows for the new utility corridor for Sunrise Powerlink and for Iberdrola Renwables 130 plus industrial wind turbine project to move forward with the permitting process."
The CPUC approved Powerlink with no requirement for any of the power produced to be from green/renewable resources, despite a state law requiring that 20% of energy from utility companies be green in the near future.
"Our governor is pushing for this line and I am concerned that President Obama may issue an executive order to waive all of the environmental requirements for Sunrise like Bush did for the fence. There are some powerful forces pushing for this greenwashed project "to save the polar bears" from global warming," Tisdale said. "We all know that SDG&E refused to accept conditioning of the line for renewables, and that the PUC and BLM approved Sunrise in direct contradiction to the extensive record and against advice of the ALJ and PUC staff. We are optimistic that the courts will overturn some, if not all, of the approvals."
A high-level source within the Obama administration has spoken with East County Magazine and confirmed that the President Obama's appointees have not yet completed reviews of the many actions taken by the Bush administration during its waning days. Sunrise Powerlink is among the projects still undergoing review, ECM has learned. Powerlink is supported by the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce, which believes the project is needed to assure a long-term energy supply for our region.
Debra L. Reed, president and chief executive officer of SDG&E stated in a press release announcing CPUC approval, "Reliable transmission infrastructure is critically needed to reinforce the region's electric system and to open up new avenues for delivering green energy to our customers." She called the permitting process for Sunrise Powerlink project "the most comprehensive ever completed for a power line in California history, adding the SDG&E expects to complete construction of the 120-mile Sunrise Powerlink in 2012, delivering up to 1,000 megawatts of "clean, green energy"; however the CPUC has not required that any of the power produced be green, leaving skeptics to raise the possibility that SDG&E could import power from its liquid natural gas facility in Mexico - a facility that was recently criticized by PBS for lax environmental standards, among other things.
Opposed to Powerlink are numerous citizens' groups, environmental advocates, and Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who have argued that the region's needs could better be met through locally-produced, sustainable energy sources. Opponents cite concerns over fire danger, visual blight and potential health hazards caused by eletromagnetic radiation from the high-voltage power lines.
"Firefighting aircraft cannot make effective water drops over a 500-kilovolt line in high wind conditions and ground attacks cannot be made within 500 feet of a power line conductor," Jacob warned in testimony to the CPUC last year. Highlighting portions of the environmental report that discuss computer modeling designed to simulate Santa Ana wind conditions, Jacob said that for the communities of Ranchita, Santa Ysabel, Ramona and Poway the presence of Sunrise was determined by the report to be a Class I threat, the highest level possible. "It is my very strong belief that what SDG&E is asking you to approve is the equivalent of walking into our fire prone backcountry during Santa Ana wind conditions, striking a match and throwing it on the ground," Jacob told commissioners. "SDG&E wants you to gamble with human life. Please don't."
Jacob also took issue with the computer modeling described in the report. "The report's computer modeling used 50 miles per hour winds to simulate extreme conditions. Santa Anas can be twice that,"she said. Between 2004 and 2006, transmission lines were to blame for nine fires in San Diego County, according to SDG&E data. Two of the nine fires were caused by heavy winds.
Jacob said the region could meet its future energy needs by retooling existing power plants in the region and by investing in innovative solar projects such as Southern California Edison's proposal to install solar power arrays on commercial rooftops throughout the utility's service territory. "There are cheaper, cleaner and safer alternatives to the Sunrise Powerlink," Jacob concluded.