PRC OKs PNM deal with environmental groups; vote on coal plant expected by year’s end

The state Public Regulation Commission on Wednesday formally accepted an agreement between Public Service Company of New Mexico and three environmental groups regarding the utility’s proposal for a coal plant — and set a new timetable for a final vote on long-debated plans for the plant.

Mariel Nanasi of New Energy Economy — an environmental group that did not sign on to the recent compromise — said after the meeting that the commission ignored her request to delay the hearing until Oct. 19. She said that’s evidence that the commission is putting approval of the San Juan project on the fast track. The order approved Wednesday says an expert would be allowed to testify for New Energy Economy on Oct. 19 if he is unavailable Oct. 13.

The state Public Regulation Commission on Wednesday formally accepted an agreement between Public Service Company of New Mexico and three environmental groups regarding the utility’s proposal for a coal plant — and set a new timetable for a final vote on long-debated plans for the plant.

In the deal, PNM made some concessions to the environmentalists in exchange for the groups dropping their opposition to plans for shutting down part of the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. The new schedule adopted by the commission calls for the stipulation to go before a commission hearing officer Oct. 13, and a final vote in December. The hearing for the previous plan had been scheduled for September.

PNM is eager to have the plans approved by the end of the year. That’s when a new coal supply agreement with Westmoreland Coal Co. would go into effect. Also, Westmoreland wants to close on the sale of the San Juan Mine, located near the coal plant, with current owner BHP Billiton at the end of the year.

The agreement approved Wednesday would keep in place the basic tenets of PNM’s plan to close two of the San Juan plant’s four coal-fired units and replace the lost capacity with more coal-generated power from another unit at the plant, as well as natural gas from a proposed new facility, nuclear power from the Palo Verde plant in Arizona and a small percentage of solar power. PNM says that, under the plan, the San Juan plant would burn about 49 percent less coal than it does now.

Signing on to that agreement were Western Resource Advocates, the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy, which is made up of 12 environmental, clean-energy and consumer advocacy groups, and New Mexico Industrial Energy Consumers.

Under the process, the hearing officer will make a recommendation for a final order after the Oct. 13 hearing. The five-member commission is then expected to act on the order by mid-December.

Commissioner Sandy Jones, D-Williamsburg, said he’s concerned about pushing that vote until December, when many people plan out-of-state holidays trips. But he and three other commissioners, voted for the new schedule. The only “no” vote came from Commissioner Valerie Espinoza, D-Santa Fe, who wasn’t present at the meeting Wednesday but did call in her vote. Espinoza has been a steadfast critic of PNM’s plans.

Mariel Nanasi of New Energy Economy — an environmental group that did not sign on to the recent compromise — said after the meeting that the commission ignored her request to delay the hearing until Oct. 19. She said that’s evidence that the commission is putting approval of the San Juan project on the fast track. The order approved Wednesday says an expert would be allowed to testify for New Energy Economy on Oct. 19 if he is unavailable Oct. 13.

Besides New Energy Economy, other interveners in the case who oppose the new stipulation are the city of Santa Fe, Santa Fe County, Bernalillo County and Southwest Generation Operating Co., a Denver-based firm that operates a natural gas plant in Belen.

Contact Steve Terrell at sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog athttp://tinyurl.com/Roundhouseroundup.

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