State leadership doesn’t stop at the Capitol building. New Mexico has numerous appointed and elected bodies at the state and local level that shape the way our state moves forward, including the Public Regulation Commission (PRC). The PRC is a five-member elected body that is tasked with ensuring fair and reasonable rates for electricity and deciding what kinds of energy power our electricity grid. The PRC keeps big public utilities like Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) and El Paso Electric in check and, with the right commissioners, can be a driving force in how New Mexico addresses climate change.
Implementation of laws that impact our state’s energy portfolio, like the Energy Transition Act (ETA), eventually make their way to the PRC. Passed into law in March of 2019, the ETA set a 100% carbon-free energy standard and put New Mexico on a path to directly address the climate crisis. The bill also established a pathway for an energy transition in the Four Corners area by providing $40 million in relief to workers and local communities in San Juan County affected by the closure of coal-fired power plants. This means that our state’s largest utility, PNM, is required to develop a plan for energy production that meets the state’s new commitment for an economically just and environmentally sound transition away from coal.
In July 2019, PNM filed the first case under the ETA when it sought to close the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station (SJGS). This was a crucial moment for the PRC to begin implementing the ETA and transition our state to a renewable energy economy. Unfortunately, the PRC had other plans. Shortly after the filing, the PRC tried to argue that the ETA would not apply to the abandonment of the San Juan plant. The PRC decision, led by Santa Fe Commissioner Valerie Espinoza, immediately halted access to $40 million for job training and development, severance pay, economic development and assistance to Indigenous people in the area, leaving the burden of this decision to rest on the backs of displaced workers and their families in the Four Corners region.
In late August 2019, two writs were filed before the New Mexico Supreme Court. One asked for several aspects of the ETA to be ruled unconstitutional under the claim that it undermined the PRC’s authority to regulate utilities and protect ratepayers. The second asked the Supreme Court to compel the PRC to clarify if they would apply the ETA to the San Juan Generating Station closure case. The Supreme Court denied both writs, leaving issues unaddressed.
In response, the biggest champions of the ETA – Governor Lujan Grisham, Navajo Nation President Nez, Representative Brian Egolf, Senator Jacob Candelaria, Senator Mimi Stewart, and Senator Nathan Small – petitioned the Supreme Court in December 2019 to ask them to direct the PRC to fully apply the ETA. The Court unanimously ruled that the ETA must apply to cases before the PRC, including the San Juan Generating Station abandonment proceeding.
Unfortunately, even with the court ruling, the PRC continued to stall and waver on the case. This was most evident when the PRC failed to approve two noncontroversial solar energy projects that were proposed as part of PNM’s replacement power plan. The Jicarilla and Arroyo solar projects would have provided 350 MW of solar energy in rural communities, and another 60 MW of battery storage. The projects also received a recommendation of approval by the PRC’s own hearing examiner.
The PRC has long been fraught with interpersonal and political dysfunction that has resulted in decisions that go against the best interest of New Mexicans. Although it is an elected body, there is very little oversight of the decisions Commissioners make, and minimal public scrutiny. This creates the opportunity for personality conflicts and individual political aspirations between Commissioners to inform voting decisions with little accountability. The result is an unusually high number of PRC dockets being decided by the New Mexico Supreme Court after litigation, rather than by the PRC, wasting time and resources. New Mexico’s requirements and qualifications for PRC office eligibility are also lax, resulting in some candidates taking office who do not have the necessary expertise for complex utility and energy decision-making.
New Mexico is currently one of a small handful of states that still elects their utility regulation commission. It’s time to modernize and reform the PRC to improve its professionalism and efficiency, and ensure that it works for New Mexico ratepayers.
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