Bad energy

by Lindsay Fendt, Searchlight New Mexico | October 26, 2021
5 min read
An aerial view of the Navajo Mine, located about 12 miles south of the Four Corners Generating Station. The mine provides sub-bituminous coal to the plant via the Navajo Mine Railroad. Photograph by Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico

Editor’s Note: This article has been made available to the Sun by our content-sharing partner, Searchlight New Mexico, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.

One of the oldest coal-burning plants in the country, Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington, is a franken-plant, marked by decades of equipment failures, forced outages and multiple attempts at pollution control. 

Rising costs have left the place so expensive to operate that PNM, the state’s largest utility, wants out — and is asking its customers to pony up and pay for the more than $300 million in investments and other costs associated with the plant.

To justify that demand, the utility is invoking the Energy Transition Act, the 2019 law heralded by environmentalists as a road map for other states to move away from fossil fuels. The landmark legislation established financial tools for New Mexico to close its coal plants and help surrounding communities transition their economies. 

But while PNM has laid claim to the financial incentives under the law, its abandonment proposal will not close Four Corners. Instead, the utility would transfer its shares to the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, an independent enterprise of the Navajo Nation, that has declared its intentions to keep the plant running as long as possible. 

Environmental groups—most of which supported the passage of the ETA—have cried foul, arguing that PNM is misusing the law by failing to push for Four Corners’s retirement. 

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office has challenged PNM’s application, asserting that the utility is using the ETA to dodge a review of its past investments and foist irresponsible expenditures onto customers.

“We have always believed that the corporation should share in the burden of transitioning to clean energy,” said Cholla Khoury, the director of consumer and environmental protection at the Attorney General’s office. “We’re all for the transition. Climate change is happening and it’s happening now, but ratepayers shouldn’t be the only ones bearing the burden.”

The fate of the abandonment application may influence how quickly Four Corners powers down. It will also determine whether New Mexico’s utilities should bear some of the cost of a renewable-energy transition or be allowed to profit entirely from it.


During the 2010s, as utilities across the country  began ditching coal due to rising costs and environmental concerns, PNM doubled down. It reinvested in its coal resources at both the Four Corners plant and the neighboring San Juan Generating Station, spending heavily on repairs and pollution controls as required by federal law. 

In 2018, despite major investments in Four Corners just several years prior, PNM executives began looking for a way out. Executives say exiting the plant would save its customers money and help the utility meet environmental goals.

PNM tried to negotiate a shutdown with the plant’s other owners but was unsuccessful. In order to walk away, it has to sell off its 13 percent share. And that opens the door for another utility to walk in. 

Most environmental groups don’t expect the utility to close the plant immediately. They just want PNM to eliminate elements of the deal that make an early closing so difficult. 

“The Energy Transition Act is supposed to be the mechanism to transition from coal plants,” said Mike Eisenfeld, a member of the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “PNM shouldn’t be allowed to derive the benefits of securitization unless they truly were contributing to retirement.”

The Attorney General’s office now also suggests that PNM is manipulating the ETA to avoid the consequences of its poor investments. 

In 2016, utility regulators reviewed PNM’s continued investment in Four Corners—just as other utilities around the nation were pulling out of coal. In hearings at the time, PNM claimed that staying in Four Corners was the cheapest option. The hearing examiner found that the utility’s decision actually cost more. 

The finding would have put PNM on the hook for all of its investments in the plant, a major blow to shareholders. But the utility’s regulator deferred a vote, leaving the decision hanging.

With the hammer ready to fall, PNM threw its support behind legislation that would give utilities automatic reimbursement when abandoning coal plants. The last of these bills was the ETA, which passed in 2019. 

PNM claims that this law overrides the hearing examiner’s past decision and entitles the utility company to collect all its former investments in Four Corners by charging its customers.  

“It’s clear cut,” Ray Sandoval, a spokesman for PNM, said. “If the concerns [about Four Corners] were valid concerns, they should have been brought up in the legislative process.”

Some legislators have belatedly attempted to address what they see as shortcomings in the ETA. Three state representatives who voted to pass it have since introduced an amendment to limit the utility’s ability to recover past investments.

“The idea that the Four Corners Plant would continue to burn coal and PNM would get all of its cost recovered basically means that the ETA was not achieving its goals,” said state Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, one of the amendment’s sponsors. The bill did not pass.

State Representative Nathan Small, one of the ETA’s original sponsors, defended the law. Despite its problems, he said it is on track for getting New Mexico to a carbon-free grid by 2045. 

But along with potentially handing PNM a windfall for abandoning Four Corners, the ETA has not delivered on many of its promises.  

Four Corners, under current terms, won’t close until 2031. The San Juan Generating Station, set to close next year, may also continue running, though permits for that project have not yet been filed. Money earmarked for job-transition training for coal mine workers
is caught up in litigation.

Meanwhile, managers of fossil fuel projects in the San Juan Basin are applying for ETA money. 

State Senator Liz Stefanics, another sponsor of the failed ETA amendment, said she’s disappointed with what the bill has achieved.

“Sometimes you take a chance with bills,” she said. “I support the intention of the ETA, but that’s not what is happening. I’m not totally discouraged, but it doesn’t look good.”


Lindsay Fendt got her start covering the environment as a reporter for The Tico Times in San José, Costa Rica. She covered human rights, immigration and the environment throughout Latin America before moving to Colorado in 2017 for the Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. Before joining Searchlight, Lindsay worked as a freelancer and is finishing a book about the global rise of murders of environmentalists.

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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