Which groups worked to draft the Energy Transition Act? Here's what we know

The Energy Transition Act will impact everyone in New Mexico, but an energy-focused group says not everyone was brought to the table.

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
  • Advocacy groups lobbied for legislation, but some groups say their voices went unheard.
  • Power the Future spokesman said people should know who is influencing legislation.

FARMINGTON — The Energy Transition Act has been touted as a bipartisan compromise that brought industry and environmental groups to the table. However, an energy-focused group says while environmental groups had a seat at the table, miners and utility workers were left in the dark.

“It doesn’t appear energy workers had a seat at the table,” said Larry Behrens, western states director for the group Power the Future.

Power the Future backs up its claims with emails it acquired through a request for public records. These emails show environmental groups weighing in on the language of the Energy Transition Act just days before the bill was introduced.

What is the Energy Transition Act? Two bills would provide financing mechanism for closure of San Juan Generating Station

Who is Power the Future?

Power the Future is a nonprofit organization focused on gaining media attention to energy-related topics. The group is pro-fossil fuel and describes itself on its website as “pushing back on the radical environmental movement.”

The group is funded through private donors and has been criticized as being funded by "dark money." 

"Our donors choose to remain private because they have seen the tactics used by the eco-left to intimidate and harass those who stand for energy workers and a strong economy in New Mexico," Behrens said.

Larry Behrens

Group alleges ratepayer protections were removed from the bill

In one place, Behrens highlighted language removed from the bill that was intended to prevent utility rates from going up as a result of increased renewable portfolio standards.

NRDC Interior West and Northwest Climate and Clean Energy Program Director Noah Long said Power the Future provides a snapshot of what happened during the bill's drafting and places the emails out of context.

He said the Energy Transition Act includes various provisions to protect ratepayers.

Who was at table when bill was drafted?

A press release from the governor's office after she signed the bill described it as a collaborative effort between community organizations, unions, utilities and advocates. The Energy Transition Act aims to steer the state away from fossil fuels while assisting communities impacted by the closure of coal-fired power plants like the San Juan Generating Station.

Long said the various participants led to significant funding being included for economic development and training of displaced workers.

"That was all coming from input from folks who care about this process," Long said.

He said everyone involved in the process had to make concessions, but the end result was a law he believes can be a model.

"I think that bill really represents sort of a new paradigm for bringing folks into the process," he said.

The legislation also included input from the largest utility in the state, Public Service Company of New Mexico.

Steam billows from the San Juan Generating Station in January 2013 in Waterflow.

Several local legislators, Farmington leaders and San Juan County officials have also said their voices were not heard despite several interim legislative committee meetings in Farmington. During those meetings they presented details about the economic impact closing the San Juan Generating Station will have on the community and concerns about increasing renewable portfolio standards leading to increased utility rates.

Opposition:Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, filibusters Energy Transition Act

In the end, those local leaders said they could have endorsed the bill if it had included an opportunity to study installing carbon capture on the San Juan Generating Station.

Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst told people attending the San Juan Basin Energy Conference in April that the proposal for carbon capture came too late in the legislative session and there were too many questions about the company offering to take ownership of the power plant and install the technology. 

Cottrell Propst:EMNRD secretary discusses carbon capture proposal

Advocacy groups often weigh in on legislation

It is not unusual for advocacy groups to influence or even write legislation. A USA Today investigation found legislation in all 50 states has been written by special interest groups.

While Behrens said the practice of groups weighing in on legislation is not uncommon, he said it is important for New Mexicans to know which groups have input on important pieces of legislation like the Energy Transition Act.

The groups included in the emails include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Western Resource Advocates, Environment New Mexico, Conservation Voters of New Mexico and the Sierra Club.

Sierra Club's Rio Grande Chapter Director Camilla Feibelman said the nonprofit works with legislators on legislation all the time.

USA Today investigation: Model legislation: Copy, paste, legislate

"This is how legislation works," Feibelman said in response to Power the Future's allegations.

She said advocacy groups and community organizations lobby to get bills passed that are consistent with their goals, and the Sierra Club even trains people to be citizen lobbyists.

Feibelman said the Sierra Club supported the Energy Transition Act because it provided the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission with a tool to fund assistance for impacted communities and assured renewable energy is moving forward. Feibelman said renewable energy prices are declining and are often competitive with natural gas and less expensive than coal.

Solar panels are pictured on Monday, March 12, 2018 at the Aztec solar farm.

Influence overstated?

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said Power the Future is overstating the influence of the environmental groups.

“I think the idea that this collaborative process was somehow 'influenced' by 'out of state' interests is not a good-faith critique, particularly considering its origin in this case,” said Stelnicki. “Environmental groups, like fossil fuel groups, like all sorts of interest groups, are always going to try to advocate their position. But to suggest those efforts in any substantive way determined the ultimate thrust of the legislation is to overstate their influence. Policymakers make policy. The provisions in the Energy Transition Act incorporate New Mexicans' collective best interest. That's really the first and only consideration.”

Energy Transition Act impacts utilities in all parts of New Mexico

This piece of legislation has been touted as New Mexico’s “Green New Deal” and includes some of the most rigorous renewable portfolio standards in the country. The Energy Transition Act received bipartisan support and was the result of about two years of work before it was signed into law by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Legislative session:Environmentalists celebrate passage of Energy Transition Act

Lujan Grisham supported the bill from the beginning and was recently recognized as a champion of the environment by the Environmental Defense Fund. The group cited her support of the Energy Transition Act.

Its passage means many utilities throughout the state will be phasing out fossil fuel generation sources in favor of nuclear or renewable energy.

Setting goals:Committee OKs bill aiming to make New Mexico carbon-free

These plans are already being rolled out. Public Service Company of New Mexico, which was involved in drafting the bill, has announced plans to close its natural gas generating stations and divest from coal.

“I think it’s important to note the Energy Transition Act is a really good example of a group of New Mexico stakeholders working together over a long period of time to hammer out a piece of legislation that works for all involved,” Stelnicki said. “Equitable concessions are made where appropriate; everyone is at the table to make sure that’s the case.”

Behrens said his group will continue to monitor the influence of environmental advocacy groups in legislation.

“The Energy Transition Act is definitely on our radar, but it’s not the only thing,” he said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.