Displaced coal miners, power plant workers want help with health insurance

Unions representing San Juan Generating Station and San Juan Mine employees have asked the state for about $6 million in energy transition funds to reimburse displaced workers for out-of-pocket health insurance costs they faced after being abbreviated. The funds will come from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.

This is especially important for mine workers who lost health insurance at the end of the month they were laid off. Power plant workers, on the other hand, have six months of health insurance after the layoffs.

The layoffs at the mine began last year as the facilities prepared to close.

Stephen Curtis, a lawyer representing the unions, said the work at both the mine and the power plant was dangerous and physically demanding. He said the loss of health insurance is one factor driving laid-off workers to either leave the community in search of work or accept “dead-end” jobs.

The energy transition funds come from securitized bonds that Public Service Company of New Mexico plans to issue to primarily refinance previous investments in the power plant. Although PNM has not yet issued the bonds, it provided $20 million to the state this summer.

The Energy Transition Act of 2019 created the mechanism for PNMs to access securitized bonds and required a portion of those funds to go to three state departments—Economic Development, Workforce Solutions, and Indian Affairs—to benefit communities and workers directly affected from the power plant closure.

Of this funding, $12 million is available through the Office of Workforce Solutions to assist displaced workers.

The Energy Transition Act Commission requested input in 2020 on possible projects that could benefit from energy transition funding.

The commission plans to present recommendations to the three state departments. These recommendations may include specific support projects or areas such as sustainable agriculture.

State law requires a formal request-for-proposal process that state departments will go through, but projects that receive support from the Energy Transition Act Committee will have priority entry into that process. However, if the commission recommends reimbursement of insurance costs, the funds can be distributed to qualified workers without going through the request for proposals process.

By the time the committee got around to discussing the proposals they had heard Tuesday, the meeting was already an hour over schedule and many members had walked out.

Many of those who remained supported reimbursing mine workers’ insurance for up to 12 months.

This would allow workers to have continued coverage for themselves and their families as they move on to new careers or retire. Some of those who have chosen to retire are not yet eligible for Medicare but will be soon. For those who have decided to pursue education that will help them enter new careers, direct insurance reimbursement payments will help them maintain health coverage while they pursue a degree or certificate.

Tom Taylor, who serves as the head of the Department of Economic Development, did not support the request and said the money should instead be used to support projects that will create jobs for those displaced workers.

Taylor, who previously served in the state House of Representatives, suggested the committee instead ask the Legislature for emergency funding to help workers who now either pay out-of-pocket for insurance or choose to remain uninsured.

Instead of making a decision Tuesday, the commission chose to reconvene when more commission members can attend and have an in-depth discussion about the proposed projects, including direct funds for insurance costs.

Jason Sandel, head of Workforce Solutions, said the prospective meeting would likely take place in the first week of December.

Other projects

During the meeting, Sandel stressed the need for projects that can quickly provide aid and jobs. This could put projects like the proposed pumped storage project at a disadvantage.

Although the pumped-hydro project would create two reservoirs in the Navajo Nation—one in Arizona and one in New Mexico—that could become tourist destinations, and while the project would create thousands of construction jobs and more than 100 full-time jobs business day, the requested funding will be used for studies necessary to obtain a license for the project from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Job creation is likely years away, and the company proposing the project will need to provide more evidence that the Navajo Nation not only supports the project, but is willing to provide both the land and water to make it possible.

And while the Energy Transition Act does not allow economic development funding to be used for projects that involve hydrocarbons, at least two of the proposals involve natural gas.

This includes San Juan College’s proposal requesting $1.4 million to train 55 workers in greener natural gas production.

There were also two proposals for hydrogen projects, but one of them – the Libertad proposal – switched from methane-based hydrogen to electrolysis, or using water to create hydrogen. When questioned about water rights, Joe Merlino, managing partner of Libertad Power, did not directly identify the source of the water. Like the pumped hydro project, the Libertad project is still under investigation. Merlino said Libertad has not ruled out using methane, but he said energy transition funds would not be used to pursue methane-based hydrogen.

Merlino said Libertad thinks methane-based hydrogen could play a role in the energy transition, but he’s not sure what that role will be right now.

He said the company’s move to focus on electrolysis is based on where the market appears to be headed.

Members of the public who provided comments urged the commission to support what they described as community proposals. These include four proposals to support traditional Navajo agriculture, a proposal for sustainable housing on the Navajo Nation, a proposal to provide off-grid solar power to residents of the Navajo Nation who do not have electricity, and a proposal to create a tourism center showcasing the unique diva nature of the mustang region and training contractors to foal mustang mares with birth control to reduce the population to a sustainable level.

Commission member Joseph Hernandez commented on the proposals for agriculture, housing and off-grid power.

“We’re hitting everything that’s needed within 100 miles,” he said, referring to the Energy Transition Act’s definition of affected communities as being within 100 miles of a power plant.

Taylor said the funding is coming to the community too late to prevent some of the effects of the power plant closing.

“A problem has already happened that we should have been ready to kill,” he said.

The commission originally hoped to have designs ready when the mine and power plant closed. This would help the workers who were displaced move immediately into new careers.

Some of the delays came from legal challenges to the Energy Transition Act, while others were related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A full list of project proposals can be found here.

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