Navajo Nation leaders and other tribal delegates made clear to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission that they are anxious for a decision on whether regulators will apply the state's newly passed Energy Transition Act to Public Service Company of New Mexico's abandonment of the San Juan Generating Station.
The Navajo Nation's president, vice president and the chair of its Resources and Development Committee, along with a delegate from the Jicarilla Apache Nation, during public comment at the commission's Aug. 14 meeting shared with regulators their opinion and preference for the commission to apply the new law.
The comment period, however, came after the commission had already tabled the item in a 3-2 vote. NMPRC Chairwoman Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, who represents the district in which the plant is located and voted with the majority to table the item, delivered a speech prior to that decision about leadership and her Navajo heritage as she introduced the tribal leaders. Commissioners Cynthia Hall and Stephen Fischmann voted against tabling the item.
The ETA, signed in March by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and developed with a wide coalition of stakeholders including industry, labor, environmental and tribal groups, went into effect June 14. PNM filed for abandonment, financing and replacement resources of the 847-MW, coal-fired San Juan plant in northwestern New Mexico July 1. Though more than two weeks separated the ETA's effective date and PNM's filing, the NMPRC at its July 10 meeting opted to bifurcate the filing, seeking to oversee parts of the proceeding under prior statutes (see CEM No. 1547 ) [19-00195-UT] and [19-00018-UT].
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the issue was so important that he had traveled from Window Rock, Arizona, to Santa Fe for the meeting despite it taking place on the same day as a celebration honoring the tribe's revered Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. He said he was joined by those present "and many other stakeholders behind me here standing in unity on the item that you just tabled."
Nez said Navajo workers, including plant and mine employees, suppliers and contractors, make up 60 percent of those directly affected by the plant's shutdown. He said he was providing input in response to Becenti-Aguilar's request that the Navajo Nation be consulted on the matter, and felt "compelled to appear" and help the commission understand that deferring a decision leaves the workers and their families in a vulnerable position. He also reminded the commission of the nation's recent proclamation and legislation to prioritize sustainable energy resources (see CEM No 1533 ).
The ETA provides for worker severance, training and economic development funds for affected communities to come from the sale of securitized bonds to be repaid through rates. Sale of the AAA-rated bonds would lower interest rates and therefore the monthly bills of PNM customers while also providing $40 million for the affected workers and communities (see CEM No. 1526 [20.1]).
"Since there will be enough coal above the surface by July of 2020," Nez said, "a significant number of mine workers will be laid off at that time." Both Nez and PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval, in a phone call, underscored that the original filing was timed to provide relief to workers by the end of April 2020.
"To delay would be negligence of your responsibilities as regulators," Nez told the commission. He commended the state of New Mexico for its willingness to support the displaced workers, and said the Navajo Nation had challenged Arizona officials to step up in a similar way in response to the closure of the Navajo Generating Station in Page, but had not been successful in its efforts.
Rick Nez, chair of the Navajo Nation Council Resources and Development Committee and a Council delegate representing four of the five Navajo Nation chapters affected by the San Juan closure, said during his comments that he had made a formal request to be included on an NMPRC meeting agenda to provide information regarding PNM's filing, but had not received a response. He appealed to Becenti-Aguilar as a fellow leader. "We must make choices that consider the best outcomes for our people and our land," he said.
Romaine Wood, a council delegate of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, read a letter from Jicarilla Apache President Darrell Paiz in support of applying the ETA and said further delays could hinder that nation's effort to transition to renewable energy. The Jicarilla Apache Nation, through a partnership with PNM, already has a contract with the City of Albuquerque and nearby pueblos to provide power from solar panels on Jicarilla Apache land (see CEM No. 1516 ). PNM's preferred plan under the San Juan filing would site an additional 50 MW of solar on Jicarilla Apache land as part of the replacement resources for the coal plant.
Sandoval said PNM and other parties have discussed the possibility of filing suit in New Mexico Supreme Court to compel the commission to apply the ETA to the proceeding, but that the continued uncertainty about which statute the NMPRC would apply has made it difficult to formulate a proper argument.
Fischmann, at an NMPRC meeting held in Rio Rancho Aug. 1, informed commissioners he had signed an order moving up the date for the hearing examiners' determination of which statute applies to the proceeding from late October to "earlier in September." Commissioners expressed concern at that meeting over Fischmann's described order, as the matter was not noticed on the agenda.
Russell Fisk of the NMPRC's Office of General Counsel assured commissioners at that meeting that the order Fischmann described and the brief discussion of it did not constitute a violation, as the matter was "purely procedural." When Fischmann's order appeared in the docket later that day, however, it made no mention of moving up the determination date.
In a tweet posted during the meeting, New Mexico Sen. Jacob Candelaria, a sponsor of the ETA, said he had asked legislative lawyers to begin exploring impeachment proceedings against the commissioners who voted to circumvent the law, Valerie Espinoza, Becenti-Aguilar and Jefferson Byrd. "Their behavior is unlawful and an affront to our constitutional order," Candelaria said.