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Committee searches for ways to provide jobs, economic development if power plant closes

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — With the clock ticking down until the possible closure of the San Juan Generating Station, the Energy Transition Act Committee's conveners hosted a virtual question and answer meeting to provide details on the request for information sent out last month looking at ways to diversify the economy and provide jobs for displaced workers.

The conveners were joined by representatives from three state agencies that oversee the approximately $20 million of funding that was authorized through the Energy Transition Act.

If the San Juan Generating Station does close in 2022, it will mean the loss of one of the major economic drivers in the county as well as approximately 1,500 direct and indirect jobs, with high proportion of that workforce being Navajo.

The Energy Transition Act committee is tasked with finding ways to spend $20 million to minimize the impacts of that closure — including training workers for new jobs and creating new career opportunities in the area.

That $20 million is broken into three pots managed by the Economic Development Department, the Department of Workforce Solutions and the Indian Affairs Department.

COVID adjusts ETA committee plans

After issuing a request for information looking for possible ways to meet that goal, the committee hosted a virtual question and answer session on Oct. 15. People who were unable to attend the meeting can view a recording at dws.state.nm.us/ETA and email addresses for people involved in the effort will also be posted on that site.

Convener Jason Sandel said the initial idea was that the committee would have community meetings that allowed for interaction and discussion about possible projects, but the pandemic prevented that from happening. 

Brian Condit, the executive director of New Mexico Building and Construction Trades Council, and Jason Sandel greet members of the Energy Transition Act committee, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, prior to a meeting at San Juan College.

He said the request for information process is intended to allow the committee to hear as many ideas and proposals as people want to share. After that, the committee will develop a process to vet those ideas in a public way.

"The process is going to unfold with the public involved," Sandel said. 

While the pandemic changed the planning efforts and Department of Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley said “we need to have a little bit of rubber hitting road.”

While the Energy Transition Act created a roadmap for transitioning the state away from fossil fuels, McCamley said the proposed petrochemical manufacturing plant is not out of the question because the natural gas would not be being burned. 

"As long as you're not contributing to carbon emissions in a long way, we want to make sure that we remain open to any of those proposals," he said.

The San Juan Generating Station is seen, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, from Twin Peaks in Kirtland.

'Concreate career pathways' a focus

From the DWS perspective, McCamley said, "we want to make sure that there are concrete career pathways built in to whatever proposal comes in."

Economic Division Director Mark Roper said the money set aside for the Economic Development Department must be used for land, building and infrastructure. 

"I think it is important to recognize that the lion's share of the money is directed toward job training," said Tom Taylor, a former state representative who was chosen to be the ETA committee convener for the Economic Development Department. "The fact of the matter is that we have...$6 million in the bill for economic development and the goal of this thing is to create new jobs in an attempt to replace some of those that were lost. And it costs a whole lot more to provide a place and the infrastructure for somebody to have a job then it does to train them for the job."

In addition to the $6 million for economic development, $2 million was set aside for the Indian Affairs Department to administer. The rest of the approximately $20 million is intended for workforce development. This funding comes from Public Service Company of New Mexico's sale of low-interest bonds to refinance past investments into the San Juan Generating Station and allow it to end its operations of the plant. The bonds will be paid by PNM ratepayers through a non-bypassable charge on their bills.

He said the infrastructure funding should be focused on projects that directly go toward providing an opportunity for a job.

Roper emphasized the importance of community buy-in for the project.

These pulverizers once crushed coal for unit 3 at the San Juan Generating Station. They have since been shut down along with the unit.

"We can't come in here and tell you what is going to work," he said. "You guys are going to have to tell us what is going to work in your area and your community and then we can bring our resources to the project."

The deadline for information to be submitted is Oct. 31.

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

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