Moving New Mexico Forward on Clean Energy
Under a proposal from New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, utilities in the state could have more impetus to move to renewable energy (RE). Under the proposed clean-energy standard, they would have to cut CO2 emissions by 4 percent through 2040, which, supporters say, would protect ratepayers from costs of future environmental regulations. The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) last month approved (3-2) a proposal that calls for scheduling public workshops on a clean-energy standard. Commissioner Patrick Lyons wants the workshops to be held in northwestern New Mexico, where utilities are looking to retire their coal assets.
PNM’s draft Integrated Resource Plan would end the utility’s coal-fired generation by 2031. Four units at the San Juan coal plant would be retired and PNM would exit the Four Corners coal plant, relying instead on natural gas and renewables. Xcel Energy is planning two wind farms in eastern New Mexico and will buy energy from two being built in Texas. It is projected that 40 percent of that region’s annual needs will be wind-driven by 2021. More than 1,800 MW of wind are under construction or in advanced stages of development in New Mexico. However, many of those projects will serve out-of-state customers.
Last month, a PRC hearing examiner rejected part of PNM’s 2018 renewable energy procurement plan because it excluded bids by independent power producers to own plants on PNM’s preselected sites. Opponents said this would unfairly allow the utility to choose only turnkey projects that PNM itself would own and run. PNM has appealed the examiner’s recommendation.
New analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), based on modeling of a series of future energy scenarios, reveals that RE, not gas, is New Mexico’s lowest-cost long-term solution. The report advocates a strengthened renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to help ensure a transition to clean energy. Last legislative session, SB 312 was introduced to that end. The effort stalled, but it’s expected to be revisited in future sessions. UCS’s report says: “By committing to an energy plan dominated by renewables, policymakers can secure good jobs, significant capital investment and a healthier world for all New Mexicans. This can be achieved while keeping costs for consumers affordable, and electricity service reliable.”
New Mexico’s efforts to encourage more RE follows EPA head Scott Pruitt’s move to repeal the Clean Power Plan, former President Obama’s signature climate rule. A repeal, however, likely won’t stop states from investing in RE.
Navajo Nation Transitioning from Coal to Solar
On Sept. 12, President Russell Begaye signed an executive order implementing a clean energy economy for the Navajo Nation. “The Navajo Generating Station (NGS) is shutting down, forcing us to make a huge paradigm shift. We are upgrading our entire infrastructure and infusing money for small businesses. I’m getting our nation ready to make this transition,” Begaye told PRI’s The World. “Part of it is creating solar farms, wind farms, natural gas. The [Colorado] river runs through the Navajo Nation for hydroelectricity production.”
The NGS and its nearby coal mine, which have provided about a third of the nation’s operating budget, provided about 725 jobs, and supported more than 100 local entities, are shutting down at the end of 2019—a victim of cheap natural gas and the declining market for coal. The NGS’s emissions contribute to haze that clouds views at the Grand Canyon and 10 other national parks and wilderness areas. In 2015, its smokestacks spewed more than 14 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
The tribe has invested in and plans to manage the Kayenta Project, a 27.3-megawatt solar farm in northeastern Arizona. The project has begun producing electricity and is capable of powering 13,000 homes on the 27,000 square-mile reservation, home to 200,000 people. Some of those houses will be getting power for the first time. Begaye has negotiated for the rights to transmission lines so the Navajos can sell power from solar or wind farms onto the grid. “If Beyage follows through with bringing the Kayenta Solar Project online, its positive effects—on climate change, tribal independence and job opportunities—can be world-changing,” said Navajo filmmaker, Tony Estrada.
Report: 7 Percent of NM Residents Near Oil & Gas Pollutants
National environmental groups Clean Air Task Force, Earthworks and FracTracker have produced an interactive online map (www.oilandgasthreatmap.com) that pinpoints active oil and gas facilities across the country, along with the number of homes, schools and medical facilities within a half-mile of them.
According to the map, 138,400 people in New Mexico, about 7 percent of the state’s population, lives near the more than 55,000 active wells, compressors and processing facilities—most in Eddy, Lea and San Juan counties. Within a half-mile radius of these sites, there are 99 schools, serving 32,000 children.
As part of the project, the groups released videos shot with infrared cameras that picked up gas plumes—apparently methane mixed with volatile organic compounds—coming from vents at facilities in Sandoval and San Juan counties. Multiple studies have documented respiratory and neurological problems and cancers linked to oil and gas operations’ pollution. The administration of President Donald Trump plans to repeal or roll back pollution controls at coal and natural gas plants.
A spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association has been quoted saying that the Threat Map is part of a “misleading campaign of fear” on the part of environmental activists and that operators in the state always strive to comply with state and federal laws. With the recent multibillion-dollar investment by companies in southeastern New Mexico’s Permian Basin, oil and gas production and its impacts on communities is expected to increase.
Interstate Stream Commission Members Resign
Following the resignation of New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) Director Deborah Dixon, three ISC members, including Chairman Caleb Chandler and longtime director, Jim Dunlap, abruptly resigned last month, alleging that state statutes were not being followed and that State Engineer Tom Blaine was trying to control the commission. As an example, Dunlap reportedly said that Blaine told the ISC’s former director to drop a challenge to water rights applications by a major mining company, after having met with representatives of the firm without giving the commission’s attorneys a chance to attend.
The resignations came the same week that decisions favoring Texas and the United States against New Mexico were announced in the U.S. Supreme Court, and reports that $12 million has been spent in the Arizona Settlement planning for the Gila River diversion, despite little progress to show for that spending.
Gov. Susana Martínez appointed Blaine state engineer in 2014. He also serves as secretary of the commission. The governor also appoints the ISC’s other eight members. The commission, whose monthly meetings are open to the public, is supposed to be an independent agency that provides transparency regarding state water policy and spending. Former ISC Director Norman Gaume sued the agency in 2014 for allegedly repeatedly violating the Open Meetings Act while making decisions about the Gila River diversion. The influential commission handles issues of water policy and management. The governor recently appointed two new members to ensure a quorum.
Spreading Chromium Plume Threatens Aquifer
Sampling a new injection well in July, Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) detected hexavalent chromium (Cr) contamination five times greater than the New Mexico groundwater standard in the “sole source” groundwater aquifer that serves Los Alamos, Santa Fe and the Española Basin. The thickness of the chromium plume at the well location that had been thought to be at the edge of the plume is not exactly known, but elsewhere it has contaminated approximately the top 80 feet of the aquifer.
LANL’s “Chromium Plume Interim Measures Plan,” approved by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), is designed to remove contaminated water from the center of the plume through extraction wells, treat it and inject the treated water into the leading edge of the plume in an attempt to slow or halt the plume’s migration. The new data suggests that injecting treated water into the well now may only push the plume farther east toward San Ildefonso Pueblo and the Buckman wells that the City of Santa Fe relies on for a third of its drinking water. Therefore, more injection wells may be needed to accurately find the true boundary of the plume, and remediation will take longer and cost more.
The NMED, which has granted the lab more than 150 compliance milestone extensions, weakened its own regulatory authority through a revised Consent Order governing cleanup that it agreed to with the Department of Energy last year. The Environment Department also has forgiven about $300 million in potential stipulated penalties.
Hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, is the culprit in many illnesses, as depicted in the well-known film Erin Brockovich.