State regulators pass on deciding on PNM plan

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Members of the state Public Regulation Commission unanimously decided to table any action on a plan designed to ensure continued operations at the San Juan Generating Station during a meeting in Santa Fe Wednesday.

The commission is considering a plan by the plant's majority owner, the Public Service Company of New Mexico, that involves retiring two units at the coal-fired generating station in 2017 and replacing the lost power with additional coal-generated power from another unit at the plant, power from the Arizona-based Palo Verde nuclear plant, and some additional natural gas- and solar-generated power.

District 4 Commissioner Lynda Lovejoy, D-Crownpoint, who is also the PRC vice chairwoman, said in a phone interview after the meeting that the unanimous decision was made out of deference to ongoing negotiations between PNM and all parties with interest in the plan.

"We felt like it was just not a good time to act on it," she said.

Lovejoy, who was elected to the PRC last November and took her seat Jan. 1, said she takes a holistic approach to the process of making a regulatory determination about the power plant and coal mine. She said she visited both Farmington-area power plants three times each during her previous eight years on the then newly reformed regulatory body beginning in 1999. Before 1999, the PRC was a body of three regulators who were appointed, she said.

"Everything is important to me (regarding the PNM case)," she said. "I want to be able to understand what PNM's promoting and why they have opponents who argue against them. It's also important to consider the region, the socio-economic, the environment, the jobs — they are all very important."

Mike Eisenfeld of the nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance wrote in an email Wednesday that last week's heavy metals-laden spill from a gold mine in Silverton, Colo., is a wake-up call about the inherent risks of pollution and damage to health that come with any investment in coal-powered energy.

Eisnenfeld added that the PRC's refusal to make public all the documents scheduled to come up at the next hearing is disappointing.

He also said the delays in reaching a decision in the case suggest that PNM has yet to get all necessary agreements in place. The next hearing on PNM's plan has been scheduled for Sept. 30, when the utility will be asked about those documents.

Lovejoy said she expects the commission to make final decisions over the future of the power plant and the San Juan Mine, which supplies coal for the plant, by October, she said.

At Wednesday's meeting, PRC members also voiced criticism over the process that led to the release of documents concerning the coal supply for and restructuring of the San Juan Generating Station to a Santa Fe newspaper, The New Mexican. A records custodian at the PRC turned over emails from all five commissioners from the first six months of the year, accidentally including some of the documents.

The paper has yet to publish the information.

One of those documents likely would include the sale price of the recently purchased coal mine, which has not been publicly disclosed.

The Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal Co. is said to have purchased the coal mine last month from BHP Billiton.

Lovejoy said it was unclear whether the release of the PRC emails that contained the documents would imperil the ongoing plan.

Lovejoy insisted that the entire commission considers the accidental release of the documents a separate matter to the ongoing PNM case, which has been on the regulators' docket for about two years, she said. Since the inception of the agency, no accidental release of documents has happened prior to July's release, she said.

Last week. the PRC filed a temporary restraining order against the newspaper. A Santa Fe judge has scheduled a hearing on the matter for today.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.