Editorial: Closing power plant will devastate the region

The Daily Times

Events related to the region's power plants and coal mines were developing at a furious pace last week.

Those operations are crucial to our local economy — which is heavily dependent on oil, gas, coal and power generation — for the hundreds of jobs and the millions of dollars in taxes and payroll they provide. Without them, the current oil and natural gas bust will look like the good old days.

What passes for good news is that Arizona Public Service Co., the majority owner and primary operator of the Four Corners Power Plant, reached an agreement with the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency that provides some stability for employees at the plant and Navajo Mine — the plant's sole coal supplier.

The feds alleged that APS made "major modifications" at the plant without getting the proper permits or using the necessary pollution controls. APS officials — who did not admit wrongdoing — said the changes were standard maintenance and didn't require permits. They blamed the EPA's "agenda against coal-fired generation."

Under an agreement announced last week that still requires a judge's approval, APS will pay a $1.5 million civil penalty and $6.7 million for programs intended to improve air quality and provide medical services to Navajo Nation residents in the plant's vicinity. So the plant will continue to operate, albeit with three fewer stacks, which were decommissioned in 2013 to meet Clean Air Act standards.

Shutting those units down means fewer jobs, but at least the plant will remain open. Unfortunately, the San Juan Generating Station faces closure if the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission rejects a Public Service Company of New Mexico plan that was more than two years in the making.

Initially, the plant faced closure because of costly improvements needed to meet federal haze standards. The current PNM plan is a compromise that would close two coal-fired units and replace that power with additional coal-fired as well as nuclear, natural gas and solar power.

In October, the EPA, the New Mexico Attorney General, PRC staff and a consumer group that included the city of Albuquerque signed off on the compromise. But PNM has struggled to get all the pieces in place and last week was granted a deadline extension to provide final agreements on ownership restructuring and coal supply.

Since October, support for the plan has eroded as the Albuquerque city council voted against it and, last week, Attorney General Hector Balderas withdrew his approval. Most of the objections are related to the plan's continued reliance on coal and the relatively small amount of alternative energy proposed.

Alternative energy — mainly solar and wind — likely will play a larger role in the future, but those technologies are not yet ripe. And this late in the game, jumping on an alternative energy bandwagon shows a lack of respect for the work that went into creating this compromise. It also shows willful ignorance of the devastating impact closing the plant will have on the lives of the people in our region.

We hope that good sense prevails and the PRC ultimately approves the plan.