Too Cozy with PNM? Four PRC Commissioners shouldn't be allowed to rule on San Juan power plan

On July 7, 2014, Public Service Company of New Mexico’s liaison with state regulators emailed a lobbyist who manages the company’s political action committee, asking for a donation to Tim Eichenberg’s campaign for state treasurer. In a follow-up email, the liaison, Mary Collins, said she’d met with state Public Regulation Commissioner Karen Montoya that morning, “and she asked.”

About a month later, the PAC contributed $1,000 to Democrat Eichenberg.

A Feb. 5, 2014, email from one top PNM executive to another referred to an apparent dispute between PRC member Patrick Lyons and PNM officials over the proposed Tres Amigas Superstation near Clovis, a $1.5 billion effort to link the nation’s three major electricity grids. Lyons apparently didn’t like published comments by PNM CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn about the project.

Gerard Ortiz, vice president of regulatory affairs for PNM, wrote in the email that Lyons, an Eastern New Mexico Republican, had asked a lot of questions after PNM made a presentation about bills pending before the Legislature. Ortiz wrote that in the hall, Lyons had asked why he should support the bills “when PNM does not support Tres Amigas, which he sees as a job issue for the east-side. Does [Vincent-Collawn] know that Lyons has a dim view of her comments on Tres Amigas? He wants her to know. Seems we have some fence repair to do.”

Later that day, Ortiz said in an email that he had spoken with Vincent-Collawn and that she was “willing to go talk with Lyons … to try to clear the air.”

These are just a few of the emails cited by the nonprofit New Energy Economy in a motion filed Wednesday seeking to disqualify four of the five PRC members from ruling on the fate of PNM’s plans for the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington.

The group contends the messages show the commissioners are too chummy with the state’s largest electric utility and shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions on the coal plant.

In its 65-page motion, New Energy Economy asserts to a hearing officer that PNM has “tainted this process with consistent and nefarious contact with the Commissioners. The cumulative weight of influence by PNM with this Commission makes a fair determination on the merits impossible.”

Hoping that the case would be “decided by neutral commissioners after all the evidence was in” was a “pipe dream,” the motion says. “Instead, four of five commissioners have prejudged this matter, have demonstrated bias in favor of PNM or against [New Energy Economy], and have been in ex parte contact with PNM during the course of this proceeding and in the run-up to this proceeding, violated codes of conduct, and engaged in prohibited acts.”

In a news release, Mariel Nanasi, executive director of the Santa Fe-based organization, said, “Wind, solar and gas provide energy that is much cheaper and just as reliable as coal and nuclear, which will kill us. But we aren’t going to have a chance to prove this to the PRC because four members of the PRC have already decided to go along with PNM’s catastrophic choice of coal and nuclear for new power resources. … The hearing will be meaningless. Our system for regulating PNM has to change.”

New Energy Economy is one of two opponents to the San Juan power plant plan who didn’t sign on to a recent agreement that PNM reached with other environmental organizations.

A PNM spokeswoman said in an email Wednesday, “PNM does NOT agree that any inappropriate communication occurred between PNM and any of the commissioners.” She called New Energy’s motion “baseless.”

Contrary to the allegations, the spokeswoman said, “PNM has a long standing commitment to renewable energy. In addition, the new stipulation put forth by several parties that represent renewable energy, environmental and customer interests agree that [the proposed plan] is the most cost-effective for PNM’s customers.”

Montoya, D-Albuquerque, said Wednesday she didn’t remember the conversation with Collins about the campaign contribution. She said she hadn’t read the motion — which was filed shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday — so she couldn’t comment on it.

Lyons could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Late last year, responding to a motion to have him and Montoya removed from the San Juan case for allegedly socializing with PNM officials, Lyons called New Energy “a very liberal organization that doesn’t take into consideration the ratepayers of New Mexico. They’re grabbing at straws, trying to push through a liberal agenda.”

The motion also calls for Commissioners Lynda Lovejoy, D-Crownpoint, and Sandy Jones, D-Williamsburg, to be disqualified. Jones said Wednesday he had not yet read the motion, so he couldn’t comment. Lovejoy could not be reached.

The only commissioner the motion does not seek to disqualify is Valerie Espinoza, D-Santa Fe, who frequently has been critical of PNM’s plans.

The utility’s plan is 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.

Of Lyon’s alleged comment about not being able to back legislation supported by PNM because the utility didn’t support Tres Amigas, the motion says, “The sort of horse trading by Commissioner Lyons regarding a matter outside the PRC’s jurisdiction (Tres Amigas) is inappropriate and shows not only his cozy relationship with PNM but also that he communicates freely off of the public record.”

Lyons, the motion claims, “is in regular phone, email and in-person contact with PNM,” including regular meetings with Vincent-Collawn. As an example, the motion mentions a June 2015 “VIP tour” of the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona with PNM senior management — along with a witness in the San Juan case — without notification to other parties.

In late March 2014, PNM’s Ortiz emailed other company officials about a conversation he had with PNM’s vice president for public policy, Ron Darnell, on how to best tell commissioners about the utility’s recent improved credit ratings.

“After a brief discussion, we decided that a public presentation could too easily backfire or be used against us in other cases and venues,” Ortiz wrote. “That being the case, we recommend that we brief Commissioner Lyons, and possibly Commissioner Montoya, about the rating upgrades privately. These are the two Commissioners that are most receptive. In addition, Commissioner Lyons is the one commissioner that seems to be best able to drive things at the Commission.”

Eventually, according to emails, Lyons and other commissioners were briefed about PNM’s credit upgrades.

The motion says Jones and Lovejoy have each said publicly that they will vote to approve PNM’s plans for the power plant.

On Aug. 13, the motion says, Jones made a public statement in Silver City that he believed the utility’s recent agreement with environment groups was “reasonable and saved ratepayers millions and basically took PNM’s talking points and became an advocate for public approval, because he had apparently already been convinced.”

The motion asks, “How can Commissioner Jones be so sure that PNM’s plan is reasonable before the evidence has been tested?”

Lovejoy, according to the motion, spoke to an Aug. 20 meeting of San Juan County Democrats and said the commission had decided to leave the San Juan Generating Station operational and that the settlement would be approved.

 

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