By Susan Montoya Bryan
Three New Mexico utility regulators have shot down an effort by one of their own to support a plan by the state Environment Department for curbing pollution at one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the Southwest.
The Environment Department is at odds with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over which pollution control measures should be installed at the San Juan Generating Station to address haze-causing emissions.
The EPA plan calls for installing equipment that Public Service Company of New Mexico claims could cost ratepayers and others at least $750 million. The state has said its plan would cost a fraction of that but still reduce emissions with different technology.
Public Regulation Commissioner Ben Hall during a meeting Tuesday introduced a resolution in support of the state’s plan. He contends the EPA is trumping the commission’s authority to make decisions that affect ratepayers.
“Time is running out,” he said in a statement. “If we don’t do something soon, the federal government is going to force this incredibly expensive project on consumers in New Mexico.”
Commissioners Jason Marks, Theresa Becenti-Aguilar and Doug Howe raised concerns, forcing Hall to withdraw the resolution due to a lack of support. The commissioners questioned why alternatives to the two plans could not be developed to ensure pollution reductions as well as protection for ratepayers.
Tuesday marked the first time the issue had come up formally before the Public Regulation Commission. The debate over the best way to control nitrogen oxide emissions at the northwestern New Mexico plant reached a boiling point last August when the EPA mandated that PNM install selective catalytic reduction technology.
Both PNM and state officials have petitioned the agency to adopt New Mexico’s plan instead. They also asked a federal appellate court to delay the EPA mandate until the case could be sorted out by the courts, but that request was denied in early March. Legal appeals are still pending.
The 1,800-megawatt plant is New Mexico’s single largest source of electricity and it also provides power to customers in California, Arizona and Utah. PNM owns 46 percent of the plant and operates it on behalf of eight other owners.
PNM spokesman Don Brown said it’s likely the Public Regulation Commission will have to discuss the matter again when the utility seeks regulatory approval for construction plans related to the EPA mandate. That’s expected to happen this summer.
Critics have accused PNM of trying to apply political pressure as the debate continues. The utility along with the Navajo Nation and a union that represents plant workers took out an ad promoting the state’s plan during President Barack Obama’s visit to New Mexico last week.
The state’s plan has also won support from the nonprofit group Prosperity Works, which advocates for low-income New Mexicans. The group argued in a recent editorial that the cost of the EPA plan was too high and resources could otherwise be used to support cleaner energy generation.
Environmental groups have been critical of PNM and the state, saying the EPA plan would do more to cut down on emissions.
Mariel Nanasi, executive director of the group New Energy Economy, was pleased the PRC failed to endorse the state’s plan. She said she viewed Tuesday’s development as a signal that the commission might not allow PNM to recover through rate increases the costs of either EPA- or state-mandated pollution upgrades at the plant.