New Mexico AG, others reach agreement on proposed wind farms
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, consumer advocates and others have reached a settlement with Xcel Energy over the utility's plans to add more wind power for customers in New Mexico and parts of Texas.
The proposed agreement was filed Monday with New Mexico utility regulators for approval. The Public Utility Commission of Texas also will have to sign off, but officials said some work remains before a final agreement can be presented to regulators there.
The Sagamore Wind Project is planned for Roosevelt County. It would be the largest wind farm in New Mexico, providing more than 520 megawatts of power.
The other — with a capacity of nearly 480 megawatts — would be located in Hale County, Texas.
As part of the agreement, the attorney general's office, staff at the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission and others sought certain assurances that the wind farms would benefit customers.
"I'm committed to ensuring energy affordability and security, protecting our natural environment and growing New Mexico's fragile economy," Balderas said Monday in voicing his support for the agreement.
The parties negotiated an investment cap that is equal to an amount slightly above the estimated construction costs. They also agreed that production from the wind farms would not fall below a certain percentage of the turbines' total capacity.
Under the proposal, the utility will be able to match the start of cost recovery in retail rates in New Mexico with the dates that the wind farms will come online.
Pending regulatory approval in both states and no detrimental effects from changes in federal income tax law, Xcel expects to start construction on the Hale project by the second quarter of 2018 and bring it on line in 2019. Work on the New Mexico project would start in 2019, with operations beginning in 2020.
David Hudson, president of Xcel Energy in New Mexico and Texas, said the company and the other parties are looking out for the long-term interests of customers.
"We know these projects will deliver lower cost electricity, protect the environment and boost local economic development," he said in a statement.
The Associated Press
Court keeps ban on new mining claims around Grand Canyon
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A U.S. appeals court has kept in place an Obama-era ban on new mining claims around the Grand Canyon, but a review under the Trump administration is putting it in jeopardy.
The decision Tuesday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals comes as a U.S. House committee heard testimony on access to minerals on public lands and dependence on foreign imports. The U.S. Forest Service under President Donald Trump has proposed reviewing the 20-year ban on new mining north and south of the Grand Canyon.
Former President Barack Obama's Interior secretary made more than 1 million acres outside Grand Canyon National Park off limits to new mining claims in 2012. It didn't affect the roughly 3,000 mining claims that existed before it went into effect, which federal officials say could result in less than a dozen mines.
The area is rich in high-grade uranium ore, and the mining industry, Republicans in Congress and some counties in Arizona and Utah said cutting off access eliminates hundreds of jobs in a remote area and puts the nation's security at risk. Uranium was discovered there in the late 1940s and is used in nuclear power plants.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act gives the head of the Interior Department authority to withdraw 5,000 or more acres from mining but not for longer than 20 years without congressional approval.
The 9th Circuit said the decision to implement the ban carefully balanced the potential economic benefits of mining against possible risks to environmental and cultural resources and did not violate federal laws.
The National Mining Association, among those challenging the ban, said it was disappointed with the ruling and is exploring its options. It can ask for a new hearing in the 9th Circuit or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Unwise and unwarranted mineral withdrawals are bad public policy that ignore the vast sectors of our economy that depend upon a reliable and secure supply chain of minerals and metals," Katie Sweeney, a senior vice president and general counsel for the association, said at the House Committee on Natural Resources hearing.
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the association said, "It is now time for the Congress and the administration, working with the impacted states, to re-evaluate whether the withdrawal was justified based on the scientific, technical and socio-economic facts."
Conservationists say the ban is crucial for protecting water and the Grand Canyon, a national park visited by more than 5 million people a year. The U.S. Geological Survey has found some water sources in the region are contaminated with arsenic and uranium but says more information is needed to determine the extent.
Carletta Tilousi, a councilwoman on the Havasupai reservation deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon that's accessible by foot, mule or helicopter and known for its blue-green waterfalls, said an environmental catastrophe easily could wipe out the roughly 775 tribal members who live there.
She urged the congressional committee to maintain protections.
"There are too many risks and many unanswered questions pertaining to the long-term effects of the groundwater contamination," she said. "The Grand Canyon should be protected for all of humanity and the residents of the state of Arizona."
Roger Clark of the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Trust said he's relieved the Interior secretary's authority to set aside land has been upheld but is uneasy about the possibility of the Trump administration overturning it without much hope of an appeal.
Weeks ago, the Forest Service proposed reviewing the 20-year ban after Trump issued an executive order for federal agencies to eliminate restrictions on energy production. An agency spokeswoman, Babete Anderson, said no action has been taken since.
In a separate but related ruling Tuesday, the 9th Circuit rejected a challenge to a uranium mine south of the Grand Canyon but within the area where new claims are prohibited.
The Forest Service found in 2012 that Energy Fuels Inc. had a valid operations plan for its Canyon Mine and had shown sufficient quality and quantity of uranium ore to mine at the site. The company's claims predated the ban.
Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore said more work needs to be done and no decision has been made on when to start mining operations.
The Associated Press
Gas driller: Make homeowner pay for disparaging us
MONTROSE, Pa. — A gas driller argued in court Monday that it's entitled to monetary damages from a Pennsylvania homeowner who continued bad-mouthing the company after settling his water-contamination lawsuit against it more than five years ago.
Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. claims Dimock resident Ray Kemble and his former lawyers tried to extort the company through a frivolous federal lawsuit that recycled already-settled claims against Cabot. The lawsuit, which was filed in April but withdrawn two months later, accused Cabot of polluting Kemble's water supply anew.
Cabot says the claims in Kemble's suit were the subject of a 2012 settlement between Cabot and dozens of Dimock residents, including Kemble. Cabot's suit also claims Kemble has repeatedly breached the 2012 agreement by publicly talking about the company.
The company is seeking monetary damages against Kemble and his former lawyers. The first hearing in the case was held Monday.
Kemble and his new lawyer said Cabot is trying to use the legal system to chill dissent and discourage attorneys from taking on contamination cases.
Cabot's lawyers said the company merely wants Kemble to abide by the terms of the settlement, which forbids him from talking to the media about his water supply.
Pennsylvania regulators previously held Cabot responsible for polluting residential water wells in Dimock, a tiny crossroads that has long been one of the central battlegrounds in the fight over gas drilling and fracking.
The Associated Press
Natural gas flaring increases in North Dakota oil fields
BISMARCK, N.D. — More than a dozen oil companies failed to meet North Dakota's natural gas flaring goals three months ago.
Operators burned off over 300 million cubic feet (8.5 million cubic meters) of natural gas per day in September, a level the state hasn't seen since the summer of 2015, reported the Bismarck Tribune . According to regulators, September's increase in flaring is a result of maintenance issues with pipeline systems and other infrastructure outages.
"I think it was a very isolated period," said Dave Tabor, a supervisor for the Oil and Gas Division.
Energy companies "flare," or burn off, vast amounts of natural gas at drilling sites because it earns less money than oil. The practice has become so prevalent in North Dakota that nighttime flaring is visible in NASA photos from space. The primary gas burned off during flaring operations is methane, which is a contributor to climate change. Environmental groups say flaring increases the risk of ozone formation in the air and ozone-related health problems.
In 2014, the state Industrial Commission adopted gas capture targets to reduce wasteful flaring of excess natural gas in oil fields. Under the policy, North Dakota regulators limit a company's oil production if they don't capture the target amount, which is currently 85 percent. In September, 13 companies failed to meet that target, according to the Department of Mineral Resources.
The Associated Press
Pipeline agency at full strength as energy decision looms
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's choice to lead the federal agency that oversees the nation's power grid and natural gas pipelines has been sworn in to office.
Longtime energy lawyer Kevin McIntyre was confirmed last month as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. His installation Thursday brings the commission to a full five members.
The commission was without a quorum for much of the year and unable to make decisions on interstate pipelines and other projects worth billions of dollars.
McIntyre arrives as the commission considers a Trump administration plan to bolster struggling nuclear and coal-fired power plants.
The plan by Energy Secretary Rick Perry would reward nuclear and coal-fired power plants for adding reliability to the nation's power grid.
Action by FERC is expected next week.