In a vote that surprised and disappointed the head of the Navajo Nation and the Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state Public Regulation Commission voted 3-2 to delay a decision on whether the state’s new Energy Transition Act applies to the utility company’s plan to close the coal-fueled San Juan Generation Station near Farmington.
The move led state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, to say he will ask legislative lawyers to explore possible impeachment proceedings against the three commissioners who voted to table the issue — an action he called “absurd and ridiculous.”
Commissioners Jefferson Byrd, R-Clovis, Valerie Espinoza, D-Santa Fe, and Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, D-Albuquerque, supported tabling the action for a number of reasons. Becenti-Aguilar, chairwoman of the commission, said she wanted more time to study the issue and get questions answered about the impact of the plant’s closure.
Byrd said he made the motion to table the item Wednesday because Espinoza initially was not present at the meeting. But Espinoza — who had already checked in by phone before being disconnected from the meeting — called back in to vote on the action, prompting Commissioner Cynthia Hall, D-Albuquerque, to say that wasn’t fair.
“We have a roomful of people here to hear the case,” Hall said, referring to representatives from several Native communities, including President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation.
Hall said Espinoza did not show up because she was reluctant to vote on the matter. Espinoza, by phone, said that wasn’t true, adding Hall had missed a number of commission meetings as well.
Commissioner Stephen Fischmann, D-Las Cruces, sided with Hall on the issue, voting against tabling the matter.
“Disappointed, yes,” Nez said following the vote. “But I’m confident the issue will come back.”
The commission’s actions could have financial, employment and possibly legal ramifications.
It also puts into question the future of the Energy Transition Act, passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this year. The measure is designed to push the state into using renewable energy sources and provides about $40 million for communities affected by the closure of coal plants and mines to help develop new industries and retrain those workers. About 60 percent of San Juan’s employees are Navajo, Nez said.
PNM agreed to close the generating station while replacing fossil fuels with solar, wind and other renewable sources. The act would in turn allow the utility to utilize a process known as securitization, which gives customers the chance to pay off bonds to help retire the plant’s assets. Savings from that initiative would fund the $40 million to help the communities near the power plant to make the necessary economic transition.
Speaking by phone, Candelaria, the main sponsor of the energy bill, said the three commissioners are “refusing to apply the law the Legislature passed.”
He said he will meet with legislative lawyers next week to determine how an impeachment process would work.
Byrd and Becenti-Aguilar defended the decision to postpone the discussion because Espinoza was not present, saying it would have been a “strong” debate with all five members on hand. Becenti-Aguilar also said that she has a number of questions yet to be answered about the plan, including how many employees will be impacted.
But Hall said after the meeting that the commission has held hearings on other matters with absent commissioners weighing in by phone.
Nez and other members of Native communities were allowed to speak to the commission during a public comment period that took place only after the vote. At that time, Nez urged the commission to “end the confusion” over whether the Energy Transition Act applies in this case.
He said had he and other speakers been allowed to voice their opinions before the vote, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
Before tabling the vote, Becenti-Aguilar, who is Navajo, opened the meeting with a sometimes moving account of the plight of the Navajo people, going back to the days of the 1864 Long Walk, the forced exile of thousands of Navajos from their homelands in what is now Arizona and New Mexico to a forlorn encampment at Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner.
She ended her tale with: “All children are my children and any decision I make in the regulatory business is going to pertain to their future.”
PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval said in an email that the utility is “disappointed that the Commission did not take action to alleviate confusion regarding the application of the Energy Transition Act to all facets of the PNM San Juan abandonment filings.”
He said PNM shares the views expressed by Nez and other Native representatives, saying “continued delay puts workers in an untenable situation.”
Becenti-Aguilar said it’s possible the commission will revisit the issue again as soon as next week.