Will carbon capture help clean New Mexico’s power, or delay its transition?

Shiprock, a sacred site to the Diné (Navajo People) is seen in the distance, the view mired in a smoky haze. Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley / for the Energy News Network

As New Mexico lawmakers were putting the finishing touches on landmark legislation to help workers and communities transition from the closure of the state’s largest coal plant, the city of Farmington had other plans. 

“We have reached a milestone that few people thought remotely possible,” City Manager Rob Mayes told the local newspaper in February 2019. An agreement was announced between the city and a New York holding firm called Acme Equities to keep the aging San Juan Generating Station operating past its scheduled 2022 retirement date. The state’s largest utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, had planned to retire the massive coal-fired power plant, eliminating hundreds of jobs and millions in local tax revenue that the 2019 Energy Transition Act intended to address. After working behind the scenes for months, though, local officials instead threw their support behind an obscure real estate hedge fund promising to keep the plant and its associated mine open by installing the largest carbon capture system on a power plant to date — by far. The $1.4 billion plan baffled energy-economics experts.

New Mexico’s coal transition law still faces an uncertain timeline

The coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico. Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley / for the Energy News Network

New Mexico was on track to become a model for phasing out coal power without abandoning those who have worked, lived, or breathed under its smokestacks. The state’s largest utility had already announced plans to divest from coal. A new state law would hold it to that pledge while also providing millions of dollars in funding for workers and affected communities. “This is a really big deal,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said at the bill signing. “The Energy Transition Act fundamentally changes the dynamic in New Mexico.”

The 2019 law has withstood political and legal challenges, but three years later it still faces a major test.

In San Juan Basin, cultural, economic bonds slow fossil fuel transition

Farmington, New Mexico, is a city tied to its boom-and-bust economy, where commerce and industry take a prominant place in the urban landscape. Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley / for the Energy News Network

Norman Norvelle’s family rolled into New Mexico’s San Juan Basin in 1957, when he was just 11, their belongings loaded into a 1953 Chevrolet sedan and an aging, half-ton pickup truck. 

At the time, Farmington — the region’s largest town — still lived up to its name. “It was a beautiful place,” Norvelle said. “There was orchards and truck gardens everywhere.” Norvelle remembers driving with his family north into Colorado and up to Kennebec Pass, high in the La Plata Mountains, and gazing out across the Basin. The air was so clear then he could see the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, some 200 miles to the south. 

It wouldn’t stay that way for long. Lying deep underneath the juniper and piñon forests, shrub-covered mesas and cottonwood studded river bottoms are vast stores of oil and natural gas, fossilized organisms that once plied the shallow inland sea that spread out across the region some 75 million years ago, and a thick bed of low sulfur coal, the leftovers of fecund and sultry shoreline swamps.