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THURS: Customer rates fuel debate around New Mexico power plant, + More

San Juan Generating Station
Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
/
AP
FILE - The coal-fired San Juan Generating Station is seen near Farmington, N.M., on Nov. 9, 2009. Unit 1 at the San Juan Generating Station was shuttered Thursday, June 30, 2022, as state regulators ordered New Mexico's largest utility to credit customers for millions of dollars in savings that will come from the plant's closure. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

Customer rates fuel debate around New Mexico power plant - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

With little ceremony, it was lights out Thursday for one of the two remaining units at a coal-fired power plant in northwestern New Mexico that has provided electricity for millions of customers in the southwestern U.S. for nearly a half-century.

Unit 1 at the San Juan Generating Station was shuttered as state regulators ordered New Mexico's largest utility to credit customers for millions of dollars in savings that will come from the plant's closure in September, when the final unit goes offline.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico had planned to wait to pass along the savings until its next rate case before the Public Regulation Commission, but regulators in ordering quicker action said they have a responsibility to ensure that rates charged to customers are fair, just and reasonable.

"PNM's new plan constitutes a moral hazard that, without the remediation ordered herein, threatens substantial and potentially irremediable harm to ratepayers," the commission's order reads.

The utility has vowed to appeal the decision, warning that applying a short-term credit would not be reflective of the costs to provide service to customers and that new rates proposed later this year would be much higher than they otherwise would have been.

PNM executives have said that such a "roller coaster" would significantly affect customers.

Pat Vincent-Collawn, PNM Resources chair and CEO, characterized the commission's decision as an arbitrary penalty, noting that the utility opted not to file for rate increases over the last two years as it navigated a transition to more renewable energy resources.

The battle over financing and customer rates related to the closure of the San Juan plant has been ongoing for months.

A need to keep part of the plant open longer than expected also raised questions about the timing for issuing bonds that would allow the utility to recover lost investments in the plant.

Regulators approved PNM's request to keep one unit open for an additional three months to avoid blackouts during the summer when air conditioners help drive up demand. The utility had warned that without San Juan, it wouldn't have the capacity to meet customer needs since solar and battery storage projects meant to replace the coal-fired plant were behind schedule.

Under the commission's ruling, utility customers would see a rate reduction of about 10%, or an annual savings to customers of about $94 million, when the plant closes in September. The order also prevents PNM from collecting operating costs since the plant would no longer serve customers.

The utility has denied that its plans amount to double dipping or that customers will miss out on savings.

The push in recent years for utilities to provide more electricity from non-fossil fuel resources has been driven by state mandates and tougher federal requirements aimed at reducing pollution.

The Biden administration has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030, and New Mexico's mandates call for carbon-free generation within the next two decades. Environmentalists voiced concerns Thursday about meeting those goals given a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that limits how the nation's main air pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

An inventory done earlier this year by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that 85% of the scheduled retirements in 2022 involve coal-fired power plants, followed by natural gas and nuclear.

Still, there have been growing pains in New Mexico and elsewhere as demand outpaces the ability to construct more solar and battery storage operations. PNM has blamed supply chain issues for its delays, and in California, fossil fuel plants might have to be tapped to avoid blackouts.

Most of the coal-fired plants making up the remaining fleet in the U.S. were built in the 1970s and 1980s.

The San Juan plant and its towering concrete stacks have been part of northwestern New Mexico's skyline since the 1970s. It has powered parts of Arizona, California and New Mexico over the years.

In the past week, workers have gathered for lunch and cake to mark the end of Unit 1.

Some workers had exit interviews Thursday, and many were holding out hope that the city of Farmington would be successful in its effort to keep the plant open as part of a proposed carbon capture project that has received some federal funding.

Justin Yazzie marked his last evening shift, opting for retirement after working for the utility for 44 years. He said it was a good job that allowed him to provide for his family.

"My heart is really hurting for the younger people. They don't have the same opportunity that I had and we sure need it now," he said, pointing to the growing pressure on oil and gas operations and other industries that have historically been the drivers of economic development in more rural areas in New Mexico and elsewhere in the West.

First oil sales on public land under Biden bring $22 million - Associated Press, KUNM News

Energy companies paid more than $22 million to secure drilling rights on about 110 square miles of public lands in the western U.S. on Thursday, during the first onshore oil and natural gas lease sales since President Joe Biden took office.

Leases on about 90 square miles went unsold in the U.S. Bureau Land Management online auctions that included parcels of federal lands in eight states.

Oil and gas produced from the leases will be subject to a royalty rate of 18.75%. That's up from 12.5% and the first royalty increase since the 1920s.

About 200 square miles of federal lands had been offered for lease in eight western states. Most of those sold were in Wyoming, where companies paid more than $13 million for parcels totaling about 105 square miles.

The Bureau of Land Management New Mexico State Office said in a statement that all six parcels that were up for sale in the state sold. The more than 535 acres of land brought in $ 632,385.

The auctions came as federal officials try to balance efforts to fight climate change against pressure to bring down high gas prices.

Biden faces calls from fellow Democrats to do more to curb fossil fuel emissions that are heating the planet. He's also under pressure from Republicans to expand U.S. crude production and bring down gas prices.

Companies have been hesitant to expand drilling too quickly because of uncertainty over how long high prices will continue.

New Mexico lawmaker enters a no-contest plea in DWI case - Associated Press

State Rep. Georgene Louis, who was arrested by Santa Fe police in the final days of a legislative session in February and charged with drunken driving, has entered a no-contest plea.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Thursday that Louis must complete 24 hours of community service.

Her plea deal is for DWI, not aggravated DWI, and other charges were dropped after she provided proof of insurance and registration, according to the newspaper.

The Journal said court documents show Louis also must comply with drug and alcohol screening, attend an education program on DWI laws and install an ignition interlock device in her vehicle.

Santa Fe police said breathalyzer tests showed Louis had a 0.17% blood alcohol content – more than twice New Mexico's presumed level of intoxication — when she was stopped by an officer Feb. 13 for driving her car 17 mph over the posted speed limit.

Louis, a 44-year-old Democrat who represents part of Albuquerque's west side and has held the House District 26 seat since 2013, is not running for a sixth term in November.

She was one of five Native American legislators in the New Mexico House of Representatives as of 2015.

Three-year abortion trends vary dramatically by state - Phillip Reese, Kaiser Health News via Source NM

A recent survey from the Guttmacher Institute documented an 8% rise in the number of abortions performed in the U.S. from 2017 to 2020, reversing what had been a nearly three-decade decline in women opting to terminate their pregnancies.

But a closer look at the findings, drawn from a comprehensive survey of every known facility providing abortions in the U.S., reveals wide variation in abortion trends among the states. While 33 states reported a rise in abortion numbers, 17 states reported declines. And the swings up or down are striking.

Among the states that saw the biggest increases: Oklahoma (+103%); Mississippi (+40%); Idaho (+31%); Kentucky (+28%); and New Mexico (+27%). Among the states with the biggest declines: Missouri (-96%); South Dakota (-74%); West Virginia (-31%); Wyoming (-29%); and Louisiana (-26%).

Notably, states such as California and New York, which have pushed to expand abortion funding and services in recent years, saw less dramatic gains of 16% and 5%, respectively.

Guttmacher, a research organization that supports abortion rights, noted that some of the state-level swings were interwoven, as women in states that have enacted laws restricting abortion access crossed into neighboring states to seek care. This is thought to be a driving factor behind the 103% surge in Oklahoma, where women from Texas — a state with some of the nation’s strictest abortion laws — sought care before Oklahoma in May adopted its own ban on nearly all abortions.

The report’s authors cited other factors, as well, including state-level variations in access to government funding for abortion care for low-income women, and regulations issued by the Trump administration that disrupted the nation’s network of Title X family planning clinics, a vital source of low- or no-cost contraception. The Biden administration has since replaced those regulations.

The stark disparities in state abortion trends is expected to magnify in the coming year, following the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, eliminating the nation’s long-standing federally guaranteed right to abortion and leaving the issue in the hands of state lawmakers.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

FEMA releases largest update to its mobile app in a decade - By Drew Costley AP Science Writer

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is releasing the largest update to its mobile application in a decade, the agency announced today. FEMA is releasing the app at the beginning of a hurricane season that experts predict will be above average and a wildfire season that's already devastating, for example, In New Mexico.

The update makes the app more like social media and includes options for users to personalize the information they get when disasters hit. It also makes the app more user friendly to people with disabilities.

"We are better helping communities plan, protect and recover from disasters through clear, effective and relatable communication," FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said in a statement.

The previous version of the app had a list of categories for notifications and looked like a directory or listserv. In the updated version, users can customize what they see based on their preferences and location.

For accessibility, the app now works with technologies like screen readers and voiceovers, is scaled for different screen sizes and has a more consistent layout. Gloria Huang, digital engagement and analytics branch chief for FEMA, said improvements for people with disabilities will continue.

"This is part of our commitment to always include accessibility as a key part of our design and development," rather than just trying to be compliant with disability laws, Huang told the Associated Press.

Huang said in the future the agency plans to make the app more accessible for people with visual impairments or reading disabilities and make some features usable offline.

The app also features a section called "Recover" where users can learn more about federal disaster declarations in their area that indicate federal assistance will be available and how to apply for it. Huang said the agency took feedback from disaster survivors because that was one major intended audience for the redesign.

The app mainly gets downloaded immediately before, during and after disasters, she said, which suggests that people are using it specifically as a tool to help them adapt and survive these events.

"It does seem that if you're going through recovery this could be a useful tool to organize potential FEMA aid," Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, told the AP.

Commission demands PNM rate credit from San Juan shutdown - KUNM News, Albuquerque Journal

At a meeting of the Public Regulation Commission on Wednesday, members voted unanimously to order New Mexico’s Public Service Co. to dish out immediate customer rate savings in lieu of the eventual San Juan Generating Station shutdown in October.

As the Albuquerque Journal reports, this would mean savings of about $1.76 a month for the average residential consumer of electricity––and a jump to $8.19 after the station fully closes.

The San Juan Generating Station is scheduled to decommission two of its operating units Friday as PNM phases out the station.

The utility was planning to keep charging its customers after the closure of the plant to pay for things like investments in the energy grid and to offset future rate increases around 2024.

The PRC didn’t take a liking to this plan, with all five members of the commission speaking out against it. Commissioner Stephen Fischmann went as far to say PNM was “cheating its customers out of savings.”

PNM plans to appeal the PRC’s order and take the matter to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

ABQ encampments rule becomes official; City Council repeal expected soon – By Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

An ordinance is on the books today allowing Albuquerque city government to sanction camps for unhoused people. It will take effect July 28, though it’s looking like the Albuquerque Council will repeal it soon after that.

Tuesday, the city clerk filed the “Integrated Development Ordinance,” which includes an amendment that lets the city approve permits for camps and establishes legal protections for people living in tents in public spaces.

The ordinance was sent to the clerk on Friday without a decision from Mayor Tim Keller, who could have signed or vetoed the measure. He took no action, which means the law is established anyway.

The City Council is expected to vote on a repeal of the encampment law when it meets again in August. Northeast Heights councilor Brook Bassan is leading the charge to repeal, reversing her support for the “Safe Outdoor Spaces” plan just weeks after she voted in favor of the amendment.

Bassan began her attack at last week’s City Council meeting — her swing vote struck down a proposal meant to generate rules and guidelines for how to sanction camps.

She is expected to introduce a bill that would put a one-year moratorium on sanctioned encampments that could have a final action by mid-August. Her push for a full repeal is expected to take months as it will likely have to go through several committees, according to City Council spokesperson Julian Moya.

Bassan said outrage from her constituents in the Heights caused her to reconsider.

As Bassan and her supporters on the Council wait more than a month to continue their repeal battle, the city is still responsible for rolling out the new law on sanctioned camps later this month without a Council direction on a framework.

What’s next is unclear, especially with so much uncertainty around the proposal. But the ordinance does require the city to assign someone to create a development plan within 100 days after the law goes into effect.

That could help determine locations for encampments, guidelines for applying, as well as safety plans for operations.

Anyone who applies would have to go through the Planning Department to figure out how to meet the standards, Moya said, and file a management and security plan with the Family and Community Services Department.

Biden administration holding its first onshore oil sales - By Matthew Brown Associated Press

The U.S. government this week is holding its first onshore oil and natural gas drilling lease auctions since President Joe Biden took office after a federal court blocked the administration's attempt to suspend such sales because of climate change worries.

The online auctions start Wednesday and conclude Thursday. About 200 square miles of federal lands were offered for lease in eight western states. Most of the parcels are in Wyoming.

The sales come as federal officials try to balance efforts to fight climate change against pressure to bring down high gas prices.

Republicans want Biden to expand U.S. crude production. He faces calls from within his own party to do more to curb fossil fuel emissions that are heating the planet.

Oil production increased in the U.S. in recent months, but it's still well below pre-pandemic levels. Companies have been hesitant to expand too quickly because of uncertainty over how long high prices will continue.

A coalition of 10 environmental groups said in a lawsuit filed before the sales even began that they were illegal because officials acknowledged the climate change impacts but proceeded anyway.

An immediate ruling was not expected. Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said the agency did not have comment on the litigation.

Beginning with this week's sales the royalty rate for oil produced from new federal leases is increasing to 18.75% from 12.5%. That's a 50% jump and marks the first increase since the 1920s.

Parcels also are being offered in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

Hundreds of parcels of public land that companies nominated for leasing had been previously dropped by the administration because of concerns over wildlife being harmed by drilling rigs. More parcels covering about 19 square miles were dropped at the last minute in Wyoming because of potential impacts on wilderness, officials said.

But attorney Melissa Hornbein with the Western Environmental Law Center said the reductions in the size of the sales were not enough.

"They are hoping that by choosing to hold sales on a smaller amount of acreage they are threading the needle. But from our perspective, the climate science is the one thing that doesn't lie," Hornbein said.

Oil industry representative Kathleen Sgamma said the environmentalists' lawsuit ignores the fact that lease sales from U.S. lands are required under federal law.

"Public lands are managed in a balanced manner. Balance is a word these groups don't understand," said Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies.

Fossil fuels extracted from public lands account for about 20% of energy-related U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making them a prime target for climate activists who want to shut down leasing.

Biden suspended new leasing just a week after taking office in January 2021. A federal judge in Louisiana ordered the sales to resume, saying Interior officials had offered no "rational explanation" for canceling them and only Congress could do so.

The government held an offshore lease auction in the Gulf of Mexico in November, although a court later blocked that sale before the leases were issued.

Top New Mexico elections regulator says she was threatened - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's top elections regulator says she received threats to her safety via an email and telephone calls to her offices and that the FBI has been notified.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver on Tuesday told The Associated Press that there have been three instances of threats against her within the last two weeks and that federal investigators have been alerted. Two threats were made indirectly in phone calls to the office of the secretary of state.

FBI spokesman Frank Fisher in Albuquerque said the agency had been contacted by the secretary of state's office regarding communications it received and declined further comment.

Toulouse Oliver previously went into hiding in response to online threats by leaving her home for several weeks in December 2020 and January 2021. Investigators linked those threats on a website against multiple election officials to Iran.

"I went a nice, long period without anything" threatening, Toulouse Oliver said. "My election security officer has referred them over to the FBI. They're looking into it obviously."

Toulouse Oliver said the threatening email touched upon social media and video commentary by a conservative filmmaker in defense of his widely debunked documentary "2000 Mules" that alleges widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

The New Mexico Secretary of State's Office has sought to dispel false assertions in the movie on the agency's "rumor versus reality" website regarding elections and misinformation, prompting a response from filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza.

Toulouse Oliver was closely involved in a standoff with local officials in Otero County in recent weeks that nearly derailed certification of election results.

The Otero County Commission initially refused to certify local results of the June 7 primary because of unspecified concerns with Dominion Voting Systems, a target of widespread conspiracy theories since the 2020 presidential election.

After an order by the New Mexico Supreme Court to certify, the commissioners voted 2-1 to sign off on the election and avert a broader crisis. Statewide results in the June 7 primary were certified Tuesday by the state canvassing board.

Nevada GOP governor candidate to pay for statewide recount - By Gabe Stern The Associated Press/Report For America

A candidate for Nevada governor who lost this month's Republican primary election by just over 11 percentage points, or nearly 26,000 votes, will pay for a statewide recount after he objected to the outcome and made numerous unproven claims about the election process.

Nevada's Secretary of State told county clerks Wednesday to begin conducting a recount this week, at a cost of $190,960 to Reno attorney Joey Gilbert.

Gilbert had 26.7% of the vote on June 14, trailing Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who won 38.4% in a crowded primary field for the Republican governor nomination on June 14. Gilbert has not conceded and will pay $190,960 for the recount.

Gilbert, who was present outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, has repeatedly challenged the primary election results, alleging workers did not properly verify signatures or monitor ballots, among many other claims.

Gilbert's team has not offered any proof for the claims and his team did not respond to emailed questions from The Associated Press on Wednesday. County clerks and officials across the state have said that the election was conducted fairly.

Across the state on Wednesday, election officials submitted estimates for how much each recount would cost.

In Washoe County, the state's second largest county, it will cost Gilbert just over $84,000. Several other local Republican candidates joined Gilbert in filing for a recount but ultimately rescinded their filings, spokesperson Bethany Drysdale said.

Washoe County will have a team work 12-hour shifts until the recount is complete, Drysdale said. A representative from Dominion Voting Systems will be present and there will also be a certification board.

In rural Nye County, with a population just over 50,000, it will cost $600 for two staff members to come in.

All 17 counties have five days to complete the recount.

"We were all preparing for it," said Sam Merlino, Nye County's clerk. "We all had a feeling there's going to be an election contest or recount."

During his campaign, Gilbert had repeated false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. And in a Facebook video posted to his page two days after the election, Gilbert urged his supporters to submit affidavits that they voted for him. He said it was not about his loss but election integrity overall, an issue that was central to his campaign.

"I just think right now, based on what I've seen, this is a mess," Gilbert said in the video. "These elections, the way they've been run, it's like Swiss cheese. There's too many holes."

For Republicans, Gilbert's apparent rejection of the results reflect growing challenges two years after many in the party embraced disproven claims of election fraud. Party leaders wants to encourage voting while also appealing to the tens of thousands who backed Gilbert and distrust elections.

The day after the election, state GOP chair Michael McDonald — who rejected the results of the 2020 election — rebuked Gilbert and said it was time to unite behind Lombardo in a rare instance of criticism of the far-right within the state party.

"The election is over. It's been called. Joe Lombardo has won. We need to come together and unite," he said, calling Gilbert's reaction "emotional."

In the two weeks since, Gilbert has talked about filing a lawsuit. In a Facebook Live video posted Tuesday, he offered a reward to anyone who could provide "smoking gun" evidence to prove corruption.

Lombard, who is endorsed by Trump, will face Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak in what is projected to be a toss-up race.

"Every legitimate news outlet has called this race for Sheriff Joe Lombardo, and it's clear that the people of Nevada have spoken," Lombardo spokesperson Elizabeth Ray said in a statement the week after the primary. "Like Sheriff Lombardo said, no matter who you voted for last week, he's ready to listen to you, work for you, and fight for you as your Republican nominee."

Despite contesting the results of his own race, Gilbert congratulated Republican senate candidate Adam Laxalt and Republican secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant for their Republican primary victories on the same ballot. Laxalt co-chaired Trump's reelection campaign in Nevada and led failed court challenges to overturn the state's 2020 election results based on false election fraud claims. In February, Marchant told voters at a candidates forum that their vote "hasn't counted in decades."

Lombardo led Gilbert in statewide polls leading up to the primary.

Dozens of angry voters last week urged county commissioners in Clark and Washoe counties to vote against certifying the tallies, describing their own experiences at the polls and repeating conspiracy theories that nearly derailed certification in New Mexico earlier this month.

Last week, two county commissioners in Esmeralda County conducted a hand count of all 317 ballots cast after the commission delayed the initial certification by one day.

All county commissions certified the vote by the Friday deadline.

The most famous recount in modern Nevada history came in 1998 when Sen. Harry Reid won reelection by 428 votes against Republican Rep. John Ensign in a recount that lasted for six weeks in Washoe County. The election night results there had Reid winning by 459 votes, but a recount and a series of challenges made Reid the official winner by 428 votes.