N.M. Supreme Court to hear new evidence by group opposing PNM’s coal energy plan

New evidence on the relationship between coal power generation and climate change will be admitted in a state Supreme Court case centering on the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s plan to replace the power from two of four units at a coal plant in San Juan County that the utility is preparing to shut down. On Monday, the city of Santa Fe, along with 37 other New Mexico environmental groups, regional politicians and tribal representatives, submitted a 35-pageamicus curiae, or “friend of the court” brief, supporting a renewable energy advocacy group’s appeal of state regulators’ decision to approve the power plan because it continues to rely heavily on coal power.

Posted: Monday, September 26, 2016 11:00 pm | Updated: 12:18 am, Tue Sep 27, 2016.

New evidence on the relationship between coal power generation and climate change will be admitted in a state Supreme Court case centering on the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s plan to replace the power from two of four units at a coal plant in San Juan County that the utility is preparing to shut down.

On Monday, the city of Santa Fe, along with 37 other New Mexico environmental groups, regional politicians and tribal representatives, submitted a 35-pageamicus curiae, or “friend of the court” brief, supporting a renewable energy advocacy group’s appeal of state regulators’ decision to approve the power plan because it continues to rely heavily on coal power.

Paul Hultin, a Santa Fe attorney who wrote the brief, said he was pleased the state’s highest court had decided to accept it. He said the brief is meant to provide “scientific evidence that coal-fired electricity is a major cause of climate change, is bad for the environment, and presents unwarranted economic and public health risks for the people of New Mexico — evidence that the New Mexico Public Regulations Commission … ignored.”

Last December, the five-member Public Regulation Commission approved a plan to allow PNM, the state’s largest electric utility, to continue operating two units at the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station, as long as the company installed pollution capture measures on them. The utility planned to increase its power supply from the remaining units at the San Juan plant, as well as purchase more nuclear power from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona, and add a small portion of wind and solar power.

The plan, which drew criticism from environmental groups and local communities, went through multiple revisions over more than a year. Some critics alleged the utility had failed to consider the potential health and environmental ramifications of continuing to operate a large coal plant. Many of these groups ultimately signed on to the plan, after reaching what many said was a sufficient compromise.

But in January, the nonprofit New Energy Economy filed an appeal of the PRC’s decision to the state Supreme Court.

The brief filed Monday in support of the appeal notes the link between climate change and greenhouse gases — including carbon emissions released through coal-fired power plants. The brief says Santa Fe is among many cities around the world that have committed to curbing activities that contribute to global warming.

Last year was also the hottest year on record, the brief adds.

It was submitted just days before the PRC is once again set to rule on another contentious matter for PNM: whether the utility can steeply hike customers’ rates for electricity. The utility says the rate increase is crucial to recoup its energy investments, including the pollution controls for the San Juan Generating Station and the purchase of nuclear power from Arizona. But critics, including the state Attorney General’s Office, have said the full rate hike is not entirely justified. A decision in that long-running case is expected Wednesday.

Steve Michel, an attorney for Western Resource Advocates, said the Supreme Court appeal of the PNM power plan is counterproductive and will nullify the environmental stipulations gained during a yearlong negotiation process.

“The concern is if the appeal is a success, and I don’t think it will be, it will hurt or reverse a lot of good environmental progress,” he said.

While Western Resource Advocates “wholeheartedly” supports the element of the brief that addresses climate change, he said, “We’ve got a lot of tools in that stipulation to close more coal, and those would all be undone if the appeal is successful.”

But Santa Fe City Councilor Peter Ives said in a statement Monday, “The simple truth is that we must stop our dependence on fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy as quickly as possible. … Santa Fe has set aggressive climate change goals. We can’t reach those targets if the PRC allows PNM to continue to make long-term investments in coal.”

“This is an economic, environmental, and moral issue,” he added.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

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