March 7, 2019

After filibuster, Senate OKs power plant shutdown bill

Doc Searls

The San Juan Generating Station, flanked by its surface coal mines on the desert north of the San Juan River west of Farmington, New Mexico. Flickr cc

A bill aimed at shutting down the coal-burning San Juan Generating Station and strengthening New Mexico renewable energy standards survived a rambling 3 1/2-hour filibuster and other parliamentary maneuvering by opponents in the state Senate on Wednesday night.

But one victim of the games on the Senate floor was the annual House vs. Senate basketball contest at the Santa Fe Indian School gym, an annual benefit for the University of New Mexico’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. The Senate team had to concede and return to the Capitol, some members arriving in the Senate chamber still wearing basketball gear, because the debate on Senate Bill 489 — dubbed the Energy Transition Act — went on well into the night.

State Sen. Cliff Pirtle returned to the Senate floor wearing his jersey for the House-Senate basketball game and the rules-mandated tie.

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, who led the filibuster, speaking for hours about his opposition to the bill, brought up the basketball game at least a couple of times during his lengthy and rambling speech.

“Although the Senate may have to forfeit the basketball game, the honor of the Senate is more important than a basketball game,” he said. “It is more important to not destroy a community.”

The power plant and adjacent coal mine are a major source of jobs in the Four Corners region.

At one point near the end of the filibuster, Sharer said, “I will not surrender. I will not turn my back on the people of San Juan County. I will not turn my back on New Mexico.”

Sharer’s speech concerned a proposed amendment to the shutdown bill that would have allowed the city of Farmington, a part owner of the power plant, more time to negotiate a sale of the plant to a New York hedge fund.

The potential buyer, Acme Equities LLC, has proposed refitting the aging facility with technology that city officials say would reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent and help pay for itself by shipping captured carbon to oil fields through a pipeline. Acme and Farmington city officials signed an agreement to negotiate the sale. Farmington is the only current owner of the plant that wants to do such a deal.

The majority owner of the San Juan plant, Public Service Company of New Mexico, has said for years it wants to shut it down by 2022. The company is backing the Senate bill, which includes proposals for easing the financial hit on PNM investors and ratepayers and the economic displacement of affected workers.

The “carbon capture and sequestration” technology being touted by Farmington and Acme Equities is controversial and has never been used in an operation as large as the San Juan plant.

Sharer repeatedly used the phrase “90 days, 90 days” during his filibuster. His amendment would have required Acme to submit a feasibility study for its proposal within 90 days. If the study showed it wasn’t feasible to build a plant and meet the carbon emission standards contained in the bill, the San Juan plant would close. If the study found it was feasible to outfit the plant with the carbon capture technology, Acme would have three years to build it.

But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, opposed the amendment. He has expressed reservations about carbon capture and sequestration. He said the amendment would weaken his bill and hurt the environment.

During his time on the floor, Sharer repeated his reasons for opposing the bill as written. He spoke about the importance of coal mining to his community, alluding more than once to the 40-plus San Juan miners who showed up to a legislative committee meeting in Santa Fe over the weekend “begging for their families.”

Sharer talked about how electricity had civilized society and spoke glowingly of the potential of carbon capture technology. “If this bill is passed [in its current form] the power plant will close, and carbon capture and sequestration will have slipped through our fingers,” he said.

He pleaded with fellow senators, saying, “If you are not comfortable with the words of this amendment, please, give us the words that will make you comfortable.”

Sharer said he believed some people don’t trust Acme “because they didn’t come to us with their hands out asking us for money.”

Sometimes his speech went off in strange directions. At one point, he spoke about the difference between Sparta and Athens in ancient Greece. And he told an anecdote about lawmakers in Bavaria in centuries past who had to vote twice on each proposal — once when they were drunk, Sharer said, and again when they were sober.

The filibuster ended just before 8 p.m. after Sharer, noticing that many senators were not in the chamber, asked for a roll call to verify that there was still a quorum. This prompted several senators, who apparently had been in the Senate lounge or a hallway, to file in. But Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, argued that by calling for the vote, Sharer had surrendered the floor. A majority of senators present agreed. And they voted down Sharer’s amendment by a 20-13 margin.

But Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, then requested a “call of the Senate,” meaning that sergeants-at-arms and state police had to round up all missing senators before any more action on the bill could be taken.

Most of the missing apparently had gone to the Santa Fe Indian School for the basketball game. Several minutes later, Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, showed up in the chamber wearing a sweaty T-shirt. Baca asked permission from Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, who presides over the Senate, for players to take their seats without wearing the usual jacket and tie. But Baca and the others later appeared in dress shirts and ties.

By this time, the Senate had launched into hearings on other bills. Though they started off with noncontroversial measures, they soon started hearing a gun bill — which nearly always provokes lengthy debate. That was the case with SB 328, sponsored by Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, which would take guns from domestic abusers and stalkers. Both Republicans and Democrats introduced a pile of amendments, nine of which were passed. That bill finally passed 27-15.

Shortly before 10 p.m., after the gun vote, discussion resumed on SB 489, the San Juan plant shutdown plan. Senators voted 32-9 in favor of the bill. Eight Republicans joined 24 Democrats to pass the bill, while two Democrats joined seven Republicans in opposing it.