SRP denied again as Corporation Commissioners reject Pinal County gas plant expansion for second time

Jeremy Beren

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Randolph resident Jeff Jordan walks to the podium during a press conference outside ACC headquarters on April 12.Jeremy Beren/NewsBreak

By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Phoenix) — Arizona Corporation Commissioners on Monday voted, for a second time, to reject the Salt River Project's request to expand its fossil fuel-burning Coolidge Generating Station.

In a lengthy and unusual proceeding Monday afternoon — and with members of the rural Randolph community in attendance — the corporation commissioners decided 3-2 to deny SRP a rehearing that could have granted it the sought-after Certificate of Environmental Compatibility needed to begin construction.

SRP needed two commissioners to flip their votes from the April 12 hearing, but only got one — Chairwoman Lea Márquez-Peterson. Commissioner Justin Olson, citing rolling blackouts in neighboring California, held firm on his "yes" vote to expand the plant as a safeguard while SRP transitions to more-renewable energy forms.

Corporate commissioners Sandra Kennedy, Anna Tovar, and John O'Connor all voted "no."

"SRP calls the environmental impact of the project 'not material.' I found that statement to be very offensive, and an example of environmental racism," Kennedy said while explaining her vote. "SRP itself admits it selected this site because Randolph is already disturbed by the existing power plant and heavy industry. This is exactly why we need to stand firm against the project, in defense of the people of Randolph. They have been targeted enough, and they are counting on the Commission to be their voice."

Bert Acken, an attorney representing SRP, had earlier discussed the company's perspective that the Coolidge plant expansion is essential to meeting metro Phoenix's power needs in the coming years.

Acken asserted that SRP was careful to scope out environmentally-compatible locations when siting the project. After utilizing federally-recommended air quality modeling, it settled on expanding the Coolidge plant as the infrastructure already existed there.

Acken told commissioners this is the same approach SRP took when it expanded facilities in the Tempe and Gilbert areas in previous years.

"There is no dispute. Everyone in the room and on everyone on Webex acknowledges the rapid growth and demand in SRP's service territory and throughout the Western region. This is a fast-ramping, quick-start facility. SRP does not currently have many of those," Acken said.

"With respect to reduction of greenhouse gases, addressing climate change, transitioning to a renewable future, this project is a very important part of SRP's plan. And without it, its ability to integrate and bring on more renewable resources is at great risk."

Court Rich of the Rose Law Group told corporation commissioners they made the right call on April 12, when the panel refused to issue a CEC for the Coolidge project. Rich, representing national environmental group Sierra Club, said SRP had no silver bullet — the company was not revealing anything new, and the panel should not be swayed to reconsider its initial decision.

"The findings of fact in the decision you adopted are 100 percent accurate and depict the truth," Rich said. "The application and the evidence do not support approval, and you rightly rejected this last time."

In its filing for a rehearing, SRP contended that corporation commissioners were unjustly executing the company's resource planning for them. Rich hit back directly at this claim and labeled it "nonsense," telling the commissioners they were simply doing their jobs by holding the utilities giant accountable back in April.

"The evidence points to a public utility, an arm of the government, that wanted to spend one billion dollars in public money without even performing an RFP (request for proposal). They had time for an RFP — in fact, they've done an RFP since — but they wanted nothing to do with the RFP," Rich said. "Yet, they want you to conclude that somehow, this is an economical decision."

Human rights attorney Dianne Post, representing Randolph's residents, called SRP's request for a rehearing a "barrel of red herrings" — including the company's "astounding" claim that the Corporation Commission had no right to disagree with its own Line Siting Committee or with SRP's board.

The Line Siting Committee previously voted 7-2 in favor of granting SRP its CEC, a fact the company's attorneys have repeated numerous times to argue that the ACC overstepped its bounds.

"There are many legal issues in this particular application, but it boils down to a very simple thing," Post said. "The question is, 'is the site environmentally-compatible?' And the answer is, 'it is not compatible.' The fact it was found to be compatible in 2009 does not mean it's compatible today."

In his rebuttal, Acken insisted to commissioners that the expanded Coolidge plant would not operate on a 24/7 basis and would offer a "backstop" when variable resources, such as solar energy, were unavailable. SRP maintains that doubling the facility's size would ease renewable resource integration into the company's grid.

In a statement to NewsBreak, SRP refused to rule out pursuing legal action following Monday's ruling — or "parallel paths of resolution," as Acken termed it.

"SRP is disappointed in the decision to deny rehearing or reconsideration," the statement read. "We will continue to evaluate what generation and market options to pursue in the near term to address the resource challenge this decision creates for serving our customers with reliable, affordable, sustainable energy. SRP will also evaluate whether to seek judicial review."

In the meantime, members of the Randolph community — such as 62-year-old lifelong resident Jeff Jordan — are celebrating the outcome of Monday's meeting.

“We are pleased that SRP’s request for a rehearing regarding the Coolidge Natural Gas Expansion Project was denied," Jordan said via an emailed statement. The Community of Randolph and myself oppose this expansion project based on the following reasons: It will and currently does impact a predominantly minority community of Randolph. The Community consists of 95% minorities. And this would be a case of environmental racism and injustice. SRP since being in business within the Randolph area has NEVER expressed an interest in assisting Randolph citizens.”

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

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