As layoffs loom for mine workers, Navajo leaders ask PRC to support economic assistance
Layoffs likely at San Juan Mine next summer
- Commissioner Stephen Fischmann said a Supreme Court decision is needed about whether the Energy Transition Act applies.
- The PRC delayed discussion on the case because Valerie Espinoza was not physically present at the meeting.
FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation and Jicarilla Apache officials have asked the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to apply the Energy Transition Act to the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s application to abandon — or stop receiving power from — the San Juan Generating Station.
Those officials — including Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer — said the Energy Transition Act is vital for assisting the Navajo employees at the power plant and coal mine, as well as the nearby community. Some of those workers could be laid off as soon as next summer.
It is unclear whether the PRC will apply the new law, and the commission was scheduled to discuss that issue during its Aug. 14 meeting. The meeting can be viewed online at nmprc.nm.state.us. A decision on the applicability of the new law may not be made until October.
"Deferring a decision leaves these workers and their families and loved ones in a vulnerable situation," Nez said. "This is especially true for those workers who will need the severance funds by next summer."
PRC delays discussion, citing absent commissioner
The PRC chose to table discussion about the case until next week. Commissioner Jefferson Byrd said he wanted to delay discussion of the case for a week because not all commissioners were present at the meeting on Aug. 14. Commissioner Valerie Espinoza was the only commissioner absent, but she called in to participate in the meeting.
The commission voted 3-2 to delay the meeting, with Espinoza casting the tie-breaking vote.
Commissioners Cynthia Hall and Stephen Fischmann opposed delaying the discussion. Hall said people from all over the state had driven to Santa Fe because the PRC was scheduled to discuss the case. She asked why they could not proceed with the discussion since Espinoza was on the phone.
"Either Commissioner Espinoza is here or she's not," Hall said. "If she's not here, and we are having a vote in which she is voting, that's not fair or appropriate."
Espinoza rejected Hall's argument.
"I am participating wholeheartedly in this discussion and in this meeting by phone, and I plan to stay on the entire meeting," Espinoza said. "So it doesn't matter if I am there or I am not. I am present by phone."
Navajo leaders stress importance of Energy Transition Act
Nez said the Energy Transition Act provides vital assistance for the majority-Navajo workforce. That assistance will not be available for the workers at the nearby Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, which will close at the end of the year.
Nez said the closure of the San Juan Generating Station is different because the New Mexico Legislature passed the Energy Transition Act, which was signed into law earlier this year.
“New Mexico is willing and able to help those displaced workers because of the closure,” he said.
Nez presented a letter to the PRC following his spoken comments.
“The Energy Transition Act, which was passed by the State Legislature and signed into law, contains $12 million for affected workers, which not only financially aids plant and mine workers, but contractors and vendors as well. In addition to that aid, another $1.8 million to the New Mexico Indian Affairs and $6 million for economic development in the affected communities. All of this goes away if you refuse to apply the Energy Transition Act,” Lizer said.
Energy Transition Act provides funding for impacted workers, communities
The Energy Transition Act created a financing mechanism through which PNM could not only recover past investment in the power plant, but also provide financial assistance to displaced workers and impacted communities.
This financing mechanism, known as securitization, comes through low-interest bonds.
If the Energy Transition Act is not applied to the case, those bonds will not be sold, and the financial assistance will not be available for displaced workers at both the mine and the power plant.
While the case is being debated at the PRC, potential layoffs are looming at the San Juan Mine.
Before the power plant closes in 2022, PNM will stop buying coal from the mine and will rely on stockpiles for the last period of operation.
That means a significant number of mine workers would be laid off in July, and underground mining would cease in October 2021, leading to more layoffs at the mine.
If the bonds are not sold prior to July, those workers who are laid off may not receive the additional severance or training.
“This is happening. The coal plant is closing,” said Navajo Council Delegate Rick Nez. “The coal mine is closing, also.”
He said the only thing the impacted communities and workers can do is use the funding provided by the Energy Transition Act.
When reached by phone after the meeting, Rick Nez said the PRC is under a lot of pressure and may need time to let emotions cool.
"When your emotions are high, you're not going to make good decisions," he said.
However, Nez emphasized that the PRC needs to apply the Energy Transition Act to the case. He said that is why the state passed the Energy Transition Act and why the governor signed it into law.
Fischmann says a Supreme Court ruling is needed
Fischmann said the PRC should get a state Supreme Court decision on the applicability of the Energy Transition Act before the commission moves forward and that the timeline for the PRC to make a decision should be put on hold until the Supreme Court rules on the issue.
"I think it's silly to go ahead with a proceeding where we haven't decided what the applicable law is and where we know that it is going to the Supreme Court and where we haven't let that issue be resolved yet," he said. "It creates so much extra work for all parties. (We) may come to a decision and then find out from the Supreme Court that we put in all that work for nothing."
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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