Protests and dissent as EIB looks at rolling back environmental protections

By Matthew Reichbach

As the Environmental Improvement Board looks at rolling back environmental rules instituted under former Governor Bill Richardson, protesters from the Occupy Movement and environmental groups have made their voices heard opposing the changes.

The existing environmental rules that the Martinez-appointed board is considering repealing relate to carbon dioxide emissions. Industry groups including Public Service Company of New Mexico (also known as PNM) and the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, back the repeal of the rules.

Occupy Santa Fe attended the hearing and used a “mic check” to have their voices heard.

During the “mic check,” which involves a large group repeating what one person says to amplify the speech without using megaphones, the Occupy protesters talked about concerns with coal-fired power plants.

“Coal burning electricity causes cancer, asthma, neurological disorders and lung disease,” the protesters said. “Elders and children are most at risk.”

David Van Winkle, Energy Chair for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, testified at the meeting and urged the EIB to not to roll back the environmental protections.

“The existing fleet of fossil fuel based electricity energy sources, specifically coal-fired power plants like the San Juan Generating Station produce significant air pollution,” Van Winkle told the EIB according to a transcript sent by the Sierra Club. “While pollution reduction improvements have been realized at San Juan due to the 2005 Consent Decree actions, carbon and nitrogen oxide pollution continue at high levels.”

Van Winkle urged renewable resources, including solar and wind, as well as energy efficiency as better ways to “serve [the] energy needs” of New Mexico.

A study by New Energy Economy, an environmental organization, found that, “Far from being costly for consumers and the New Mexico economy, we find that the compliance scenario creates jobs and saves money for electricity consumers while reducing greenhouse gas and other pollutant emissions in New Mexico. In our estimation, implementing such a compliance scenario would help to mitigate future increases in electricity bills in New Mexico.”

Industry groups say that complying with the new environmental rules would significantly increase the cost of electricity in New Mexico and that cost would be passed on to consumers.

Showdown at the PRC: Consumers win as PNM’s rate increase is slashed

By J. Daniel

By any standard, it was a stunning upset. PNM lost yesterday and New Mexico consumers won.

As the state’s largest electric utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) had grown accustomed to having its way with the 5-member elected body charged with regulating it — the Public Regulation Commission. After two straight years of getting its rate increase requests granted, this year PNM and its army of lawyers and lobbyists decided to go for a three-peat in 2011 — initially asking for a whopping $165 million rate hike.

After months of hearings, including closed-door negotiations from which consumer advocates were excluded, that figure got bumped down to a base rate of $85 million. However, a number of  consumer charges were tacked on in addition to the base rate — masked as extra “riders” to the so-called “stipulated agreement.”

So with customary sign-off by the lawyers from the Attorney General’s office, it looked like smooth sailing for PNM’s third straight rate hike. Soon it would be sending out bills to its residential customers with a hefty new increase tacked on.

But Thursday was decision day, and despite all the behind the scenes machinations of the lawyers, PNM ran into a brick wall of unprecedented customer resistance leading up to the PRC hearing in Santa Fe.

“We received hundreds of calls,” was the refrain voiced by at least two of the Commissioners as they prepared to cast their deciding votes.

And then in quick succession, the PRC rejected three motions favored by PNM (one even failing for lack of a second on a motion by Patrick Lyons). It then voted 3 to 2 and passed a framework put together by Commissioner Jason Marks that granted PNM a $72 million rate increase.

Marks explained it this way:

“It’s important that the company only gets what’s fair for PNM and its customers… We can’t afford to give the company the benefit of the doubt. We’ve got to sharpen our pencils. We’ve got to make sure we’re not asking a ratepayer to pay a dollar more than the law requires.”

As a regulated utility monopoly, PNM has a statutory right from the our legislature to make a profit.  The Commission must adhere to that law.  The true question before the Commission was how much exactly to award.

A press release issued by Prosperity Works, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, lauded the PRC’s decision:

“Today the Public Regulation Commission was presented with four options to address PNM’s rate increase request. While all four options included rate increases, the one that passed today will have the smallest impact on consumers,” said Carmela Starce, lead council for Prosperity Works.  “We wish to thank Commissioners (Jason) Marks, (Jerome) Block and (Theresa Becenti) Aguilar for their vote on behalf of New Mexico’s consumers.”

Starce pointed out, “Let me be clear, one of the commissioners who voted against the Marks plan did so – not because he was against a rate increase but because he favored the plan that would have cost New Mexicans the most money and put it right into PNM’s pocket.  Today, three commissioners did the best they could with what was before them.  They should be applauded for working on behalf of New Mexicans to make sure that PNM didn’t get a penny more that it could justify.”

Starce estimated that the PRC’s action today will save consumers at least $60 million over the next five years.

PNM has ten days in which to appeal the decision.

More Clearly NM coverage of the PNM rate hike fight here.

(Many thanks to Charlotte Chinana, who contributed to this report.)

Join Prosperity Watch in Publicly Shaming PNM’s Overpaid Execs

By Tracy Dingmann

Outrage over the Public Service of New Mexico’s plan to raise rates on New Mexico customers while paying its top executives millions has prompted one local group to form a “Shame Campaign” against PNM.

Prosperity Works, a nonprofit that works to bring energy efficiency and economic stability to New Mexico families, recently launched the campaign after the Albuquerque Journal reported that PNM’s new top executive, CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn received a $1.22 million bonus in addition to her $550k salary, for a total compensation of $1.7 million.

The company’s other top four officers received bonuses ranging from $166,466 to $525,466, and the chairman of PNM’s board was paid $1.2 million, for a total of about $ 5 million in bonuses.

This news comes approximately one month before PNM’s hearing before the Public Regulation Commission regarding its request to raise New Mexico’s rates by $85 million, as well as charge an additional $20 million in fees and riders.

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PNM Settlement on Rate Hike Rejected

By Tracy Dingmann

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission has refused to accept a utility rate hike settlement proposed by PNM that some groups called secretive and unfair.

The PRC acted Feb. 17 to reject the settlement, which would have allowed PNM to raise rates by almost eleven percent.

That settlement had been strongly opposed by New Energy Economy and other parties on various grounds including legality, due process and adequate public notice.

In its action yesterday, the PRC said it would only consider an uncontested settlement or stipulation when considering a future rate hike.

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