El Paso Electric’s goal of building a natural gas power plant on the city’s Northeast side is facing several hurdles that could delay or even derail the project.
The proposed facility, called Newman 6, would replace older and less-efficient equipment and “ensure a long-term” positive environmental impact on the community, according to the utility. But local and national environmental groups are pushing back and arguing the project needs more scrutiny.
Miguel Escoto, the West Texas field associate at Earthworks, a national environmental advocacy group, is urging residents of Chaparral, New Mexico, and Northeast El Paso to attend the June 3 virtual hearing before the Texas Commision on Environmental Quality.
Escoto said Earthworks goals also include convincing a judge to grant a more in-depth hearing and ask TCEQ to reconsider approving the permit.
“It’s not a done deal yet,” Escoto said, “because TCEQ still has to approve the air permitting process and because of the looming question of when the Environmental Protection Agency regulations are going to come in (to play).”
El Paso Electric said the Newman 6 project is necessary to keep up with increasing electric demand and save 600 millions of gallons of water currently used by older facilities.
The project has an estimated $163 million price tag — $157 million for construction and $6.2 million for transmission costs.
It will also make El Paso Electric money: the utility is projecting an $18.6 million in savings and fuel costs in the first year, according to testimony from James Schichtl, vice president of regulatory affairs, submitted to the Public Utility Commission of Texas.
Aside from Earthworks, Newman 6 has also drawn criticism from local activists, experts hired by the cities of El Paso and Las Cruces, and New Mexico’s attorney general, according to objections filed with Texas and New Mexico utility regulators.
Because El Paso Electric provides electricity to more than 437,000 customers in Far West Texas and Southeast New Mexico, it requires approval from both states.
Texas utility regulators unanimously approved the project in October 2020, but the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission unanimously denied the application in December 2020, citing concerns that the utility did not consider the Energy Transition Act, a 2019 state law mandating New Mexicans receive 100% of their power from zero-carbon sources by 2045.
El Paso Electric said it will continue with the project. Spokesperson Javier Camacho told El Paso Matters the company only had to secure approval from the TCEQ for changes to the plant’s air permit.
In a public meeting in October 2020, members of the public and environmental activists requested a hearing through the State Office of Administrative Hearings.
Austin-based Administrative Law Judge Rebecca Smith will hear arguments during a June 3 video conference hearing where she will name parties and set a later date for an evidentiary hearing.
Escoto said the goal is to convince the judge to grant what’s called a contested case hearing,which could be a six-month process.
Any member of the public can request to be a party, but only named parties can participate further in the process, according to the notice of hearing,
A separate ruling from a federal appeals court case may further complicate the utility’s plans.
That decision is a result of a 2018 lawsuit brought against the EPA that challenged the agency’s designations of air quality in cities and counties around the United States where, despite pollution levels above federal air quality standards, the agency gave them passing designations.
El Paso was one of those cities, despite state monitoring data showing parts of El Paso at ozone concentrations above the federal standard.
Ozone pollution, commonly referred to as smog, forms when emissions from tailpipes, oil and gas extraction, smokestacks and other sources react to sunlight. Its levels spike in summer months due to hotter conditions.
The American Lung Association describes smog as a “powerful respiratory irritant” which, at levels currently found across the U.S., can worsen or cause respiratory harm, early death, cardiovascular problems and possible birth defects.
The EPA did not defend El Paso’s designation, agreeing that it should be reevaluated. In July 2020, a federal appeals judge ordered the agency to revisit the designations.
Attorney David Baake represented the local Sierra Club chapter, the city of Sunland Park and Familias Unidas del Chamizal in the lawsuit. He said he expects the agency to designate El Paso as “non-attainment” for its ozone levels, which means it’s below federal air quality standards.
“If the designation is finalized, before El Paso Electric gets their permit, they’d have to start the air permit process all over again because their application is premised on the idea that El Paso is meeting air standards,” Baake said.
Camacho, the spokesman for El Paso Electric, deferred comment on the impact of air quality standards on Newman 6 to the EPA.
Joe Hubbard, an EPA spokesman, told El Paso Matters that he did not know when the agency would make a decision regarding air quality attainments.
“EPA does not have a timeline, but is working to address the remanded areas as expeditiously as practicable,” Hubbard said.
A change to the city’s air quality designation is not just a relabeling; it also means companies looking to expand industries will need to conform to different standards.
Lawyers representing TCEQ, the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, Texas Oil & Gas Association, Texas Association of Manufacturers and El Paso Electric filed a motion in the lawsuit to voice that concern.
“Projects that were viable under an attainment designation may no longer be viable when subjected to the more stringent requirements associated with a nonattainment designation. For example, industries in nonattainment areas may be required to install costly control technologies on emitting facilities,” they said in the court filing.
Cover illustration is an artist rendering of the proposed Newman 6 power plant, courtesy of El Paso Electric.
Disclosure: El Paso Electric is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters. Javier Camacho, an El Paso Electric spokesperson, is a member of the El Paso Matters board. Donors and board members do not have input in El Paso Matters editorial decisions and policies.