Business leaders throw support behind coal plant proposal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Business leaders on Thursday outlined the economic devastation they say could come if New Mexico regulators fail to approve a plan to shut down part of a decades-old coal-fired power plant to meet a federal mandate.

The Public Regulation Commission is close to deciding whether to approve a plan by Public Service Co. of New Mexico to close part of the San Juan Generating Plant and replace it with a mix of more coal along with nuclear, natural gas and solar power.

Members of the Association of Commerce and Industry, the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, Four Corners Economic Development and other groups are siding with the utility.

They say the plan represents a balanced approach to curbing pollution, protecting jobs and continuing to supply customers with affordable electricity.

But environmental groups say the utility isn't doing enough to wean itself from coal and is setting up ratepayers to bear the costs of future environmental regulations.

A group of about 20 protesters rallied outside while the business groups warned that closing the entire plant would have a ripple effect through the Four Corners region.

Kim Carpenter, the executive officer for San Juan County, said millions of dollars in tax revenue for the local school district, the community college and the county's coffers are at stake.

Any decrease in revenue would compound the problems the county has seen over the last six years, he said, pointing to more than $53 million in budget cuts.

"This this kind of situation could really create turmoil," Carpenter said. "And frankly speaking, I'm sick and tired of people telling us how to live when they don't live in our community. I'm tired of the picketing with what's going on when they've never set foot in the county."

Camilla Feibelman with the Sierra Club said PNM and other utilities need to start planning as electricity markets shift from coal. The jobs that would be lost by closing San Juan and the mine could be replaced if steps are taken now, she said.

"It's like Kodak, the photography company. They couldn't get ahead of the digital game. They went the way of the dinosaurs, and PNM runs the same risk, and it's a real disservice to workers to not plan ahead," she said.

Farmington and San Juan County officials suggested unemployment could double to 12 percent if the plant were forced to close and as much as $100 million in wages and benefits would be lost.

"We're not just talking about numbers on a page, but we're talking about real people," said Ray Hagerman, CEO of Four Corners Economic Development.

The partial closure of San Juan will address the federal government's call to reduce haze-causing pollution in the Four Corners. As part of the plan, PNM will install pollution controls on the two remaining units, provide more than $1 million in job training funds and will not lay off workers.

The utility has yet to finalize a coal purchase agreement to ensure the plant is supplied after 2017, leaving critics to question whether the days are numbered for both the plant and the mine.

Chris Roop, a third-generation miner from Farmington, said the plant and the mine will have a future if state regulators approve PNM's plan.

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