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High-profile energy bill passes Senate

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Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, gestures Wednesday while debating a bill that would overhaul New Mexico’s energy portfolio. The bill passed via a 32-9 vote after a lengthy debate. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A high-profile energy bill passed the Senate late Wednesday night after a procedural fight sparked by a Republican lawmaker’s lengthy filibuster.

The flare-up led to strong words, allegations of debate suppression and the interruption of an annual charitable basketball game, as seven senators that had left to play were summoned back to the Senate chambers in t-shirts and shorts.

Before that happened, Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, held the Senate floor for nearly four hours in an attempt to force changes to the bill that would reshape New Mexico’s energy landscape by imposing renewable energy standards and providing financial assistance to the state’s largest utility to offset the cost of closing coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region.

The bill ultimately passed on a 32-9 vote – about eight hours after debate began – after majority Democrats used a parliamentary maneuver to halt debate.

The legislation, Senate Bill 489, is supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, several environmental groups and Public Service Co. of New Mexico, the state’s largest utility.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, defended the measure’s legality after several senators raised the prospect of legal challenges if it’s ultimately enacted.

“The changes that are happening in the world energy market are real,” Candelaria said. “Tonight we started being proactive.”

However, Sharer accused the bill’s backers of pushing to close the San Juan Generating Station despite opportunities to keep the plant open using cleaner technology.

“I stood in your way because I knew the damage this was going to do to San Juan County,” Sharer said at one point during his filibuster, which touched on the Senate’s history, carbon-free energy and ancient Greek city-states, among other subjects.

In its current form, the measure would replace all of New Mexico’s carbon-emitting generation with clean-energy resources over the next 25 years.

That would mean ending decades of coal-fired generation, gradually phasing out most natural gas plants and constructing utility-scale solar and wind farms, possibly accompanied by other renewable resources, such as geothermal power.

In addition, the bill would allow fixed-rate bonds to be issued to help PNM recover the costs associated with the transition to new energy sources.

That provision drew scrutiny during last year’s 30-day session – when a similar proposal stalled at the Roundhouse – and came under criticism during Wednesday’s debate.

But several proposed amendments that would give more oversight to the state Public Regulation Commission were defeated before Sharer launched his midafternoon filibuster.

Before the filibuster, Candelaria said New Mexico ratepayers’ monthly bills would grow more slowly under the proposed legislation than if it’s not passed.

He also said it would provide a pathway for making New Mexico a national leader in clean energy.

“We have a collective moral responsibility to address the issues … that affect all parts of the state,” Candelaria said during Senate floor debate.

Opponents have also questioned whether 100 percent carbon-free generation is even obtainable in 25 years, given logistical challenges presented by solar and wind farms.

Local officials want the plants to continue operating, and Farmington is pursuing an agreement with a New York-based investor to take over San Juan after PNM and most other co-owners abandon the plant in 2022.

Sharer argued that lawmakers should add an amendment to the bill that would give 90 days for a feasibility study to be conducted on the potential deal.

He also said the legislation would deal an economic blow to the Four Corners region, which has for decades relied on the San Juan Generating Station, the nearby Four Corners Power Plant, and coal mines connected to those plants to provide thousands of high-paying jobs and property tax income.

“This whole bill is securitization so that PNM can get into the green energy field,” Sharer said, referring to the bonding mechanism included in the bill.

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