Most Vocal Critic of PNM plans says mission is about Justice
From the Santa Fe New Mexican:
The walls of Mariel Nanasi’s office on East Alameda Street are covered with paintings by Northern New Mexico artists and posters proclaiming that “Coal Hurts” — a core message for her organization, which was founded a dozen years ago “to build a carbon-free energy future.”
As executive director of New Energy Economy, Nanasi is the public face of the advocacy group that has been the most unyielding in efforts to push New Mexico’s largest utility to reduce its reliance on burning coal to generate electricity. Even the group’s allies on many issues say New Energy’s uncompromising aggressiveness can be counterproductive.
Until late August, the nonprofit was one of several environmental organizations opposing Public Service Company of New Mexico’s plans for the aging San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. The company proposes to shut down part of the plant and replace some of the lost capacity with natural gas, nuclear power and a small percentage of solar power while continuing a significant dependence on coal — something the company says will soften the impact on electric bills.
But New Energy found itself standing alone when the other interveners in regulatory proceedings over PNM’s plans agreed to a deal with the company. New Energy refused to sign a stipulation that accepts the proposed mix of energy sources for now but requires the company in 2018 to file a new case with the state Public Regulation Commission to determine the extent to which the San Juan plant should continue operating after 2022.
New Energy continues to fight the utility on several fronts — basically accusing the investor-owned company of putting profits before health concerns. Earlier this month, the group convinced the state Supreme Court to consider arguments that four of the five members of the state’s elected regulatory commission should be disqualified for being too cozy with PNM executives.
One of the commission members the group is trying to have removed from the case, Patrick Lyons, R-Cuervo, has called New Energy “a very liberal organization that doesn’t take into consideration the ratepayers of New Mexico.”
The person filing the court motions, sending out the news releases and recently cross-examining the utility’s experts at hearings on the power plant is Nanasi.
From the start, she has been the most vocal critic of the San Juan plans, saying they don’t go far enough toward investing in clean-energy alternatives like solar. Losing her allies in this battle, including Western Resource Advocates and a coalition of a dozen environmental, clean-energy and consumer advocacy groups, was personally painful, Nanasi said.
Steve Michel of Western Resources Advocates called Nanasi “a dedicated environmental advocate” who is “very skilled at organizing public involvement.” He said in a statement that his group has worked with her and New Energy Economy and that they have done good work.
But Michel added, “Recently, we have had strong differences over the San Juan Generating Station controversy. [New Energy Economy] is doing all it can to obstruct and halt what many in the environmental community, and WRA, consider to be a very good resolution. This worries me because, if [New Energy Economy] succeeds, the outcome will likely be much worse — with more coal-fired generation produced for a longer period of time, less renewables, and less of a commitment in New Mexico to address climate change. I know that is not [New Energy Economy’s] intent, but that would be the result.”
This break with other environmentalists doesn’t seem to slow Nanasi down. She gets almost giddy when talking about technical esoterica in the San Juan case and excited about points she is trying to make in her effort to decrease the amount of coal burned at the power plant.
So, who is this happy warrior?
Nanasi, 51, is a wife and mother of two grown children. She is an avid skier and a self-described “great cook” who regularly buys her ingredients at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.
At heart, though, she is an activist with a long history in civil rights, anti-war activity and, more recently, environmentalism.
Born in Englewood, N.J., Nanasi earned her undergraduate degree at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and her law degree from the University of Denver in 1989.
After graduating, she worked in a public defender’s office and in the law office of her future husband, Jeffrey Haas. Haas is a longtime civil rights lawyer. Back in 1969, Haas was one of the founders of the People’s Law Office in Chicago, which represented the family of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther member who was killed in his sleep by law enforcement in 1969.
Nanasi specialized in police misconduct cases, becoming something of an expert in “cop rape” cases, she said.
Her first visit to New Mexico was a ski trip to Taos with a college friend. Later, while in Denver, she and a group of fellow law students went to Tierra Amarilla to show solidarity with Amador Flores, who was refusing to leave a piece of land-grant property claimed by an Arizona developer. By 2001, she convinced her husband to move to Taos.
The first time time she was quoted in The New Mexican was in October 2002, when she was part of a group called Action Coalition Taos that organized a protest of the Iraq War in front of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s home in El Prado, near Taos.
The next year, Nanasi and Haas sued the town of Taos, which had tried to prevent the Action Coalition from displaying an anti-war banner near Kit Carson Park on the second anniversary of the Iraq invasion. The couple prevailed. “We filed for a temporary restraining order, and it was granted the same day,” she said. And after two years of legal wrangling over legal fees and expenses, the town government agreed to pay $361 in legal expenses and $10,000 to a local private school’s scholarship fund for Hispanics.
That school was called Yaxche, which boasted small classes and rigorous academics. Nanasi joined the school’s board in 2006 and later became board president. But after Yaxche’s chief financial backer died in an auto accident in 2008, the school struggled. By 2009, the school had to close after it defaulted on a loan, according to a report in The Taos News.
While still living in Taos, Nanasi and Haas represented the family of a 27-year-old Santa Fe County jail inmate who committed suicide behind bars in 2002. Tyson Johnson was kept naked in a padded cell, where he was supposed to be monitored every 15 minutes, according to depositions in the case. In 2004, the Utah-based Management and Training Corp., the private company running the jail at the time, agreed to settle the lawsuit. Both sides agreed to keep the amount a secret. Eleven years later, Nanansi still won’t disclose the amount except to say, “It was one of the biggest settlements [for a jail death] in U.S. history.”
Nanansi and her family moved to Santa Fe in 2008 and started a practice here. She said her late grandmother had come to her in a dream and said she should move so her kids could have a better education. (They attended Santa Fe Prep.)
Nanasi said she never was truly concerned about global warming until she attended a conference in California organized by a group called the Bioneers. The Bioneers’ website quotes her as saying: “I went to the conference. Like a sponge, I soaked up the message: Climate disruption is urgent! After that first conference I left my ‘safe’ life as an attorney … and became a climate and energy expert and activist. I need to look at my kids in their eyes and say that I used my talents to address climate disruption.”
When she returned to Santa Fe, Nanasi began volunteering for New Energy Economy. She eventually asked then-executive director John Fogarty for a job and was hired as a “policy adviser.”
When Fogarty, a physician, moved to Africa in 2010, Nanasi became executive director. “I’d never been executive director of anything before,” she said.
New Energy at the time was working on getting the state to adopt a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions from large polluters. Former Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration adopted the rules, but when Gov. Susana Martinez took office, she refused to publish them and other anti-pollution rules. New Energy was among groups that sued the state in response. The state Supreme Court in early 2011 agreed with the environmentalists and ordered the state records administrator to publish the rules.
The victory, however, was short-lived. In 2012, the state Environmental Improvement Board, with new members chosen by Martinez, overturned the anti-pollution measures.
While the utility matters she deals with now are far different from the civil rights issues she dealt with in her former career, Nanansi sees a common thread: Justice.
“I want to change the energy system of New Mexico, the inequality. I care about justice,” she said.
“I feel like I’ve lived a good life,” Nanansi said. “I’ve got a great husband, great kids. … I’ve taken my life seriously. I want my life to matter.”
Asked for comment about Nanasi for this story, a spokeswoman for PNM said, “Given the pending litigation, it would not be appropriate for us to comment.”