Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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Southern New Mexicans can breathe just a little bit easier about the expansion of El Paso Electric’s (EPE) proposed Newman 6 plant.  The community of Chaparral, which lies within two miles of the proposed plant, will still have a dirty fossil fuel infrastructure built virtually in their backyard; however, EPE has agreed to several provisions that will help their air be a little cleaner to breathe. An agreement has been reached between community groups and EPE that will temporarily block construction of a new fossil fuel power plant and push EPE toward a cleaner energy future.

The Newman Generating Facility located in El Paso and operated by EPE, is one of the largest sources of ozone-forming pollution in the El Paso-Las Cruces area and the chief nitrous oxide emitter. “While we are far from attaining a 100 percent clean and renewable grid, this settlement brings us that much closer while also giving a traditionally marginalized community of color a fighting chance,” Antoinette Reyes from the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club said.

It’s a tradeoff. Fracked gas pollution causes huge health problems, including higher rates of asthma, often in communities that have already been hit hard by the pandemic. In exchange for concessions from EPE, Community Groups have agreed to withdraw their legal case challenging EPE’s application for an air permit for the Newman 6 now set to be constructed at the Newman methane gas power plant. According to objections filed with Texas and New Mexico utility regulators, Newman 6 has also drawn criticism from experts hired by the cities of Las Cruces and El Paso as well as New Mexico’s attorney general. 

EPE’s application to build the plant required approval from both states, as it was to provide electricity to more than 437,000 customers in Southeast New Mexico and West Texas. The new power plant plant was unanimously approved by Texas utility regulators in October 2020; however, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission unanimously denied the application in December 2020 because the Energy Transition Act, a 2019 state law mandating New Mexicans receive 100 percent of their power from zero-carbon sources by 2045, was not considered in the application. The utility company had said it would continue with the development of Newman 6 without approval from New Mexico for their application.

“The legal deck was stacked against us, fighting a utility like El Paso Electric,” said Dr. Jeanette Lara, New Mexican resident from Chaparral. “The health and climate concessions we forced from EPE were because we worked hard to organize our community. The struggle is not over until EPE replaces all its fossil fuels with the clean, renewable energy that we deserve and the world desperately needs.”

Under El Paso Electric’ agreement with the Chaparral Coalition for Community Health and the Environment, the Sierra Club and Earthworks (the Community Groups), the utility company is prohibited from ever constructing another fossil fuel unit at the Newman power plant site after Newman 6 is built. EPE is also prohibited from constructing any new fossil fuel units, anywhere, for the next four years, with limited exceptions.

In addition EPE must also begin the process of retiring two existing gas units, which were constructed before the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and lack basic emissions controls and reduce CO2 pollution from Newman 6 by 500,000 tons—the equivalent of taking 100,000 cars off the road, or planting 8 million trees.

The settlement requires EPE to decrease ozone-forming NOx pollution from Newman 6 by 50 tons and dedicate funds to reducing ozone-forming volatile organic compound (VOC) pollution across El Paso County, fully offsetting the emissions from Newman 6. EPE must also create a fund to support the impacted communities, mitigate the local effects of pollution generated by Newman and make environmental reports from Newman Unit 6 publicly available online.

The project’s high price tag will be footed entirely by Texas ratepayers, as EPE is now prohibited from providing New Mexicans with power from this plant, “We do not want Newman 6. But if it’s going to be built anyway, it’s better built with this settlement than without it. Newman 6 will now pollute our community less than it would have otherwise, and EPE will pay into a fund to support the community they are impacting,” Dr. David Garcia, a Chaparral resident and former Doña Ana county commissioner, said.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just announced a “code red for humanity” regarding the emergency need to reduce carbon emissions. “It is tragic that, just after the world’s climate scientists put us on red alert, the sunniest city in Texas is locking itself into decades more fossil fuel generation,” said Miguel Escoto, an organizer with Earthworks who lives in El Paso. Escoto said he feels the fact that this deal is the best the community could possibly legally accomplish is a demonstration of the complete failure of our regulatory systems.

The agreement has forced El Paso Electric to substantially reduce dangerous emissions and commit to a moratorium on fossil fuel development, a historic achievement that could set a precedent for utilities across the country.  “As long as El Paso Electric continues to run any of its fossil fuel units, our community will continue to suffer. The next step is for EPE to commit to achieving 100 percent clean energy, and we will keep fighting to make sure it does,” Las Cruces-based attorney David Baake, who represented the Community Groups challenging the Newman 6 air permit, said. 

“The money we secured for the Chaparral community is just the beginning,” said Emma Pabst, Sierra Club campaign representative. “Until El Paso Electric truly says ‘no’ to fossil fuels altogether, we and the Chaparral community will continue to push.”

As part of the agreement, El Paso Electric agreed to pay $400,000 to a charitable organization $400,000 to a charitable fund to be designated and administered by
Chaparral Community Coalition as part of a community benefits agreement. The Chaparral Community Coalition will have the authority to determine how the funds are spent but shall include pollution reduction or mitigation measures.

Written by

Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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