Tribes get advisory role in New Mexico utility regulation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed a former state lawmaker and two energy policy experts on Friday to a powerful regulatory commission whose decisions have direct economic and environmental consequences for the state’s utility customers.

Brian Moore, Patrick O’Connell and Gabriel Aguilera start work Jan. 1 on the Public Regulation Commission under a voter-approved overhaul that changed the commission from a five-member elected body to one appointed by the governor after a monthslong nominating process.

The New Mexico Senate will confirm the governor’s choices during the upcoming legislative session.

“These appointees are experienced professionals who have the skills needed to oversee an energy transition that is affordable, effective and equitable for every New Mexico community,” said Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who is embarking on her second term following a hard-fought reelection bid.

A nominating committee had sent Lujan Grisham a list of nine finalists, most of whom were from New Mexico’s most populated areas. That prompted criticism from some lawmakers and advocacy groups about the lack of representation for Native Americans and northwestern New Mexico, where one coal-fired power plant and an adjacent mine were recently shuttered, taking with them hundreds of jobs and tax revenue.

Seeking to address the concerns, Lujan Grisham signed an executive order Friday creating a Tribal Advisory Council to provide input to the commission. It will be made up of one representative from the eight northern pueblos, one from the 10 southern pueblos, one from the Apache tribes and one from the Navajo Nation.

In the executive order, the governor encourages the PRC to meet with the advisory council on a regular basis and consult with its leadership at commission meetings.

“It’s extremely important that we ensure tribal voices are heard on issues before the PRC, regardless of who is appointed to the commission now and into the future,” Lujan Grisham said. She noted that regulators will have more important decisions to make as the state continues to implement the 2019 Energy Transition Act.

The commission will play a role in ensuring new renewable energy resources and battery storage projects being brought online can meet customer demands as more coal-fired plants close in the coming years. They also will be tasked with keeping rates affordable in a state where many families are at or near the poverty line.

The commissioners also must decide a billion-dollar rate case involving New Mexico’s largest electric provider — Public Service Co. of New Mexico, and they may have to revisit a contested merger between PNM and Avangrid, a U.S. subsidiary of global energy giant Iberdrola.

O’Connell, an engineer with more than two decades of experience, previously worked for PNM as the utility’s director of planning and resources before becoming the interim clean energy director at Western Resource Advocates. His term on the commission will be six years.

O’Connell has said that he applied to be a commissioner because he thinks he can continue to make a difference in the fight against climate change while regulating essential services that New Mexicans use every day.

Western Resources Advocates, the state attorney general’s office and others were among those who supported the proposed PNM-Avangrid merger when it came before the commission in 2021. The companies filed an appeal with the New Mexico Supreme Court after the elected commissioners decided the deal did not offer adequate protections for customers.

Moore, a Republican, represented several eastern New Mexico counties during his term as a state lawmaker and is now president and CEO of Ranch Market supermarket in Clayton. He previously served as the legislative team leader for the New Mexico Association of Counties and was on the Renewable Energy Transmission Authority board.

Moore also was a member of Lujan Grisham’s Economic Recovery Council. His appointment will last two years.

A graduate of New Mexico State University, Aguilera has worked for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission since 2007. He most recently served as a senior policy advisor for FERC’s Office of Energy Market Regulation. His appointment is for four years.