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Corridors for the transmission of electricity — and concerns

August 26, 2018

Along with a handful of other people from Mountainair, my wife and I attended a meeting of the Renewable Energy Transmission Authority board in the Roundhouse recently. Like most New Mexicans, we had never heard of the board until a few weeks before. But RETA (pronounced like the first name of that fiery World War II pinup) is not at all fiery and, except for its chairman, is as silent as its mission.

RETA’s mission is, among other things, to “identify and establish corridors for the transmission of electricity within the state” — a mission so silently pursued that despite the board chairman’s proud statement that “we have been working on this for nine years,” people who live around Mountainair, across whose land the 175- to 200-foot towers will march on their way toward the edge of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, only heard of the project a couple of weeks ago. They heard of it when they received letters from Pattern Energy inviting them to attend an “open house” a day or two later. Some didn’t get their letters until the day after the “open house.”

Pattern’s idea of an “open house” is an informal drop-in affair with coffee and cookies at which members of the public can chat individually with transmission line officials. No public discussion and certainly no public opposition. As one of those officials told me later, “Pattern has decided that they are never going to give you folks a microphone.”

Pattern is officially a partner of RETA, so it (and Clean Line Energy, from which it bought the proposed transmission route in May) presumably knows the nine-year history of behind-the-scenes discussions and map-overlays and cost-benefit analyses and negotiations for tax subsidies that have culminated in a red line across the map. That red line slashes across the sight lines of families who have owned their plots for centuries and those who have recently settled and built in these hills specifically to avoid looking at transmission lines. Many are not ranchers or farmers. Some have been into renewable-energy a long time before Pattern was. Most of them — like most people who do not work in the White House or a coal mine — are not opposed to renewable energy. And many point to possible alternative routes that avoid the national monument and the important watershed of Abo Pass.

The difficulty for them is that they have no one to appeal to except RETA. The statute that brought RETA into existence exempted it from “the supervision or control of any other board, bureau, department or agency.” So while other transmission lines are overseen by the Public Regulation Commission, RETA’s projects — which incidentally wield the hammer of condemnation to enforce their offers — answer only to RETA.

When the time for legally required public commentary came, those of us at RETA’s meeting spoke up — about the dangers to the watershed, about Pattern’s unwillingness to hold a proper public meeting, about the people who will live near the transmission line if not quite under it. The board listened in silence. And then did nothing. Members did not ask Pattern to address our concerns. They did not ask us for clarifications or details. They did not schedule a later meeting to look into matters. The chairman thanked us for our statements, assured us they had listened, warned board members to refer all questions from the public to the board’s lawyer, said they might meet again sometime in October and called for a motion to adjourn.

Dan Embree is a West Pointer and Vietnam veteran. He has lived in New Mexico since retiring as an English professor in 2004.

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