4 Investigates: New Mexico's energy battle | KOB 4
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4 Investigates: New Mexico's energy battle

Tessa Mentus
August 29, 2019 08:25 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- New Mexico is in the middle of an energy battle just as massive the San Juan Generating Station itself.  The fight does not just involve what comes out of the plant or its attached coal mine near Farmington.  It's also about the people who go into them every day.

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"These folks, this is who they are.  This is who their fathers were; this is who their grandfathers were," said Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett.  "We're right here in the middle of this story."

That plant's final chapter is set to end in 2022 when PNM closes it. More than a thousand people will clock out for the last time.

"We want to keep our jobs," said Shannon Fitzgerald, who has worked at the plant for 36 years. "We want to keep our way of life up here."

"My mom and dad met building San Juan Generating Station, " said Geneva Griego. "My mom was the laborer, and my dad was an iron worker, so I'm here because of that place."

PNM announced a plan to close the plant in 2017.  Local and state officials have been preparing since then.

"They deserve an investment," said Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.  "They made New Mexico successful, and we should repay their investment in us."

That was the idea with New Mexico's new Energy Transition Act (ETA) passed this year.  The ETA sets a standard to have completely carbon free energy by 2045.  It also includes tens of millions of dollars to help San Juan plant and mine employees.

"We're the only state, ever, to have an equity fund that does exactly this," said Governor Lujan Grisham.  "It supports workers."

Essentially there is a $40 million safety net woven into the ETA.  Half of the money would go to plant and mine workers through severance packages, new job skill training, and other incentives. The other $20 million is supposed to pay for efforts to expand and diversify the economies affected; however the holes in that safety net are large right now, and the promise of that money being guaranteed is up in the air.

"I do have regulators who have said 'we're not ready, we have questions,'" said Governor Lujan Grisham.

Some of the state's Public Regulation Commissioners have those questions, leaving that equity fund and coal miners, like Joseph Lee, in limbo.

"If, if it goes through," said Lee. "It's not definite; it's not written in stone."

There is a hang-up. The Public Regulation Commission (PRC) opened a case to oversee the plant’s closure before the ETA was put into law. It's not clear if the PRC will have to consider some of what's in the ETA when reviewing PNM's plan. That could be a problem.

"It's a really muddy pool of water that we would all be standing in at that point," said Mayor Duckett.

Could there be a much clearer solution?

"We don't just have to stand by and say 'hey, thanks for this money, and we hope we can put it to good use,'" said Mayor Duckett.  "Now we can say we're the owners of our own destiny."

In August 2019, the city of Farmington, which owns part of the San Juan Generating Station, signed a contract with a New Mexico company called Enchant Energy.

Enchant believes it can keep the plant open by installing new technology called carbon capture.  It would be a nearly $1.3 billion project.

"It might be 'pie in the sky' right now, but it's a great opportunity if we can get it to go," said Matt Christianson, who represents some of the plant and mine workers.

The technology would capture carbon dioxide produced by the plant.  It would then be shipped by pipeline to the Permian Basin where it could be stored or used in oil and natural gas production.

"If you can keep the plant going for another five years, that's still another five years or $75 million or maybe it ends up being $60 million in salaries annually being spent, which will help us in our other economic diversification efforts," said Mayor Duckett.

However, there is no guarantee with this plan either.  By 2022, the ETA puts limits on the amount of carbon dioxide fossil fuel operations can produce.  Enchant claims it can meet those limitations.  If so, could New Mexico be on the forefront of cleaner coal?

"Everybody is going to win if this project comes here, " said Benson Bitsui, who represents some of the plant and mine workers.  "That's the way I look at it."

While the San Juan Generating Station saga affects hundreds of workers, it could affect us all.

"We also ship taxes to Santa Fe," said Fitzgerald.  "Awful hard for me to pay my state taxes when I'm not making a wage."

"We also do traveling to Albuquerque, to Santa Fe," said Lee.  "We spend, or I spend coal mining dollars down there."

"It's not as easy as just shutting it down and walking away," said Fitzgerald.

"Whenever my kids see commercials on television it's like 'mom, you're losing your job,'" Griego said through tears. "That's what we deal with every day."

"I hope that people understand we are not just numbers," said Traci Harwood, who works at the mine.  "We are actual people who live and breathe the same air that they do, and we love our families just as much."

Governor Lujan Grisham's office released this statement regarding Farmington's deal with Enchant Energy:

"The governor has been very clear all along: If the city or community is able to execute a strategy that leads to a situation where the generating station can comply with the guidelines of the law, she would not at all stand in the way of that. Far from it."

However, her administration does have concerns about the viability of Enchant's proposal, and furthermore, who would buy the energy generated at the plant. 

UPDATE

PNM and environmental groups filed an emergency petition with the New Mexico Supreme Court to force the PRC to enact the Energy Transition Act. 

Credits

Tessa Mentus

Copyright 2019 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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