New Mexico panel considers future of coal-fired power plant

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s largest electric provider wants to transfer its share of a coal-fired power plant to an energy company backed by the Navajo Nation, but environmentalists argue that approving the deal would prolong the life of the plant and run counter to the state’s renewable energy goals.

The state Public Regulation Commission will determine whether Public Service Co. of New Mexico’s plan for Four Corners Power Plant is in the public interest during a two-week hearing that begins Tuesday. It heard from the public Monday.

Some of those who spoke at the virtual meeting Monday choked back tears when talking about pollution emitted by the plant over the decades, while others spoke about how their jobs at the power plant and coal mine helped to put their children through college.

Some tribal members told regulators that all levels of Navajo leadership are behind the proposal. They said allowing the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. — or NTEC — to take over the utility’s stake in Four Corners would provide more time for the tribe to find ways to deal with significant economic consequences that will come when the plant closes in 2031.

If regulators don’t approve PNM’s plan, the Navajo Nation could lose up to $60 million annually, said LoRenzo Bates, former speaker of the Navajo Nation Council. The tribe is already struggling to absorb lost jobs and revenues after the closure of a coal-fired power plant in Arizona in 2019 and is bracing for the closure next year of the San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico.

Four Corners and the mine that feeds it employ about 700 mostly Navajo workers. The plant has an annual payroll of nearly $100 million and pays $100 million in taxes, fees and coal royalties, according to Arizona Public Service Co., one of its owners.

Other tribal members and environmental groups are urging the commission not to approve the proposal, saying the plant should be shut down as soon as possible. They cited pollution and health concerns along with New Mexico’s requirement for utilities to cut carbon emissions as a way to combat climate change.

PNM wants out of the coal business and has been adding more wind and solar resources. The state is requiring it and other utilities to provide more electricity from emissions-free sources over the next two decades.

PNM also wants to use low-cost bonds that would be paid off by utility customers to recover $300 million it has invested in the power plant. The utility is hoping to get regulatory approval for the deal as it prepares for a merger with global energy giant Iberdrola.

If regulators don’t approve the transfer to NTEC, then PNM would have to figure out a new plan to exit the plant. It can’t decide alone to shut down the plant, which has four other owners.

Commission Chairman Stephen Fischmann said regulators’ decision will be “a tough one.”

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