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Sunrise Powerlink
San Diego Union-Tribune, January 23, 2009

Environmental group asks court to block Powerlink
By Onell R. Soto

An environmental group is asking the California Supreme Court to stop the controversial Sunrise Powerlink, saying that the state Public Utilities Commission violated state law in approving it.

“They fell short in a couple of very important ways,” said Steven Siegel, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a petition with the Supreme Court late Wednesday.

He said the process failed to provide enough information about how the 123-mile line from the Imperial Valley to San Diego would affect the environment and did not properly account for or mitigate the damage it would cause.

A spokeswoman for the PUC said she couldn't comment on the appeal.

San Diego Gas & Electric says the $2 billion power line is needed to increase reliability, enable the company to get cheaper electricity and also import solar power and other non-fossil or “renewable” fuel sources from the Imperial Valley, eastern San Diego County and Mexico,

An SDG&E spokeswoman said that the PUC properly approved the line and that the company expects the Supreme Court to rule in its favor.

“The Sunrise Powerlink has been one of the most rigorously reviewed infrastructure projects in the state's history,” spokeswoman Jennifer Briscoe said. “The Center for Biological Diversity's actions, along with any other protests or suits, can only serve to delay the development of renewables in our region,” she said.

The Sunrise Powerlink would run for 123 miles from Imperial County to San Diego, carrying enough power for 685,000 homes.

It will be paid for by electricity users throughout California. As a regulated utility, SDG&E will be guaranteed a profit for building it.

Critics of the line say it is unnecessary, too damaging to the environment and too expensive.

In the court filing, the Arizona-based environmental group said state regulators wrongly passed over better alternatives, such as putting in solar collectors in urban and suburban San Diego, running the power line along Interstate 8 instead of through the desert, mountains and forest, or requiring that the line be used substantially for clean power from the sun, the wind and geothermal sources.

It also said the economic analysis that led the PUC to approve the line is unreliable and that the commission glossed over other important issues.

It said commission “failed to weigh important environmental impacts and policy considerations.”

The organization went to the Supreme Court to cover its bases because two separate state laws set out different appeals procedures for such decisions.

Today it plans to ask the PUC to reconsider its Dec. 18 decision, in which four of its five members voted in favor of an alternative backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Before voting, the commission considered three alternatives. One would reject Sunrise. Another would approve it on the condition that it carry clean energy. The third – backed by the governor – approved it without those conditions.

The fifth commission member, Dian Grueneich, was assigned to the case and sat through dozens of hearings. She concluded the line could be justified only if SDG&E is required to use it for clean energy.

The Center for Biological Diversity asked the Supreme Court to put off deciding what to do about Sunrise until after the PUC acts.

Another group opposed to Sunrise, the Utility Consumers' Action Network, is also planning today to ask the commission to reconsider its approval.

On Tuesday, the federal Bureau of Land Management approved the use of 85 miles of its land in San Diego and Imperial counties for the power line.

The Cleveland National Forest, which would be used for about 20 miles of the line, has yet to approve it. A spokesman said this week the forest supervisor would likely wait to see the outcome of the legal challenges before acting.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a nationwide nonprofit that has battled state and federal governments over application of environmental laws for decades.

© Copyright 1995-2009 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton