Let Us Be Heard

New Mexico might adopt a renewable energy transition, but tribes are concerned about lack of outreach

A bill wending through the Legislature aims to put New Mexico on a path to a full transition to renewable energy resources.

SB 489 would steadily increase the state's renewable portfolio standards to 100 percent zero-carbon resources by 2045. It would close the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station, and has garnered endorsements from big names like the Sierra Club and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham; the latter showed up to the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee hearing early on Saturday morning to pass out coffee to audience and committee members.

Backers say SB 489 would make New Mexico a national leader in the transition toward a more sustainable future. Yet testimony this weekend revealed that in the process of drafting the bill, sponsors and environmental groups failed to include Native people in imagining what that future could look like. Further, they did not consult any of the Indigenous communities or tribal governments in the Four Corners region who will be directly impacted by the closure of the San Juan Generating Station, the primary owner of which is the Public Service Company of New Mexico.

This oversight reveals significant blind spots within the mainstream environmental movement toward the area of environmental justice, where issues of inequality and historical oppression intersect with the issues of climate change and conservation. Moreover, tribal leaders are concerned with potential job losses through closure of the plant, which is located along the border of the Navajo Nation.

The bill received a "do pass" recommendation from the Senate Conversation Committee on Feb. 26. But tribal members stood up during the hearing to voice their concerns about the lack of consultation.

The Corporations and Transportation Committee heard the bill Saturday, and on Monday its members moved an amended version forward, which includes additions from Sen. Benny Shendo, Jr. (D-Jemez Pueblo) that address some of the issues concerning Indigenous community input.

At Saturday's hearing, Janene Yazzie (Diné) told committee members: "I am here to speak on behalf of the coalition of leaders, organizers and advocates that have brought forward an Indigenous reading and analysis of the bill. … As it was originally introduced, [the bill] only represented the results of negotiations between industry, environmental groups and nondescript community groups and the compromises that were agreed upon between these actors. … Not inviting us to the table until after this bill was introduced does not uphold the consultation standards that need to be respected in decisions that impact our Indigenous communities."

Bill sponsor Jacob Candelaria (D-Albuquerque) issued a public apology, and a representative for the president of the Navajo Nation spoke in support of the bill and thanked the sponsors for including amendments to address the needs of Indigenous peoples.

Daniel Tso, council delegate for five impacted communities on the Navajo Nation, tells SFR by phone that this endorsement is not enough.

"The president hasn't heard from the chapters and the citizens who are wanting amendments to this particular bill," he says, adding that proper consultation must begin at the grassroots level by first contacting communities on the ground who are most immediately impacted by any proposed legislation.

While Tso agrees with the goals of SB 489, he remains concerned that the language of the bill could be interpreted to exclude tribal entities from placing bids on the production of renewable resources needed to replace the electricity currently generated by the San Juan station.

"There is this tremendous opportunity for the chapters to participate in the production of solar electricity … but [SB 489] leaves little opportunity for having a far more competitive market for the solar energy production," he says. "If it passes as written, then that would just leave us with no prospect of being self-sufficient or being able to transition."

The coalition says this is also a concern for pueblo communities who are interested in or who have already begun producing their own renewable energy.

Theresa Cardenas represents the Union of Concerned Scientists of New Mexico, one of the groups involved in drafting some of the polices and proposals that ultimately became SB 489. She says that pueblos were invited to a panel discussion and workshop early in the process, and that Environment New Mexico brought a presentation to the All Pueblo Council of Governors in November. However, language specific to SB 489 was not presented at the time. She acknowledges the group did not return to the council with the details.

The council responded on Dec. 13 with a letter to the speaker of the House, Brian Egolf, outlining the exact circumstances under which they would support renewable energy legislation. Among other stipulations, the letter calls for community solar gardens, local choice energy, and a transparent competitive procurement process.

A law firm that has been working with Laguna Pueblo on current legislation, Leger Law and Strategy, tells SFR in an emailed statement that "SB 489 works ONLY if SB 456 and Community Solar HB 210 also pass.  SB 456 requires transparent and open competition for renewable energy generation.  Who would oppose competition that saves the ratepayers money and extends renewable economic opportunities throughout the state's rural and tribal areas?"

Candelaria assured committee members on Saturday that nothing in the bill explicitly limits independent energy producers from bidding on replacement power. But the issue of competitive procurement remained a significant concern for committee members even after they took the vote.

Committee Chair Clemente Sanchez (D-Grants), who voted yes, said: "I am hoping that PNM is true to their word to be truly competitive and work with communities."

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