Chambers of commerce throughout the state expressed full support for a proposed $180 million Liquid Natural Gas storage facility that would be built west of Rio Rancho during the first half of a public hearing before Public Regulation Commissioners on Monday (Nov. 20). 

But there was plenty of opposition from residents and ratepayers of New Mexico Gas Company’s proposal during the hearing held at the Sandoval County Commission chambers in Bernalillo.

Opponents not only objected to the proposed location on about 20 acres on a 160-acre parcel north of Double Eagle Airport in Bernalillo County, some of them said an LNG storage facility wasn’t needed at all.

“To me, we should not build anything,” said Michael Sweringen, who lives about 4 miles from the site. “We need to stop investing in fossil fuels.”

Continued use of fossil fuels that harm the environment was a common objection. Another was the potential risk to public health, especially it being located so close, and generally upwind, from the Albuquerque metro area. 

A few people mentioned the increase to gas bills. NMGC says customers would initially see a 3.2% rate increase – about $3.13 for the average household – to their monthly bill as the facility is paid off over the next 30 years. 

While most members of the general public speaking on the issue opposed the plan, a few supported it. Early in the hearing, Scott Croshaw, who lives in the Ventana Ranch West development, altered commissioners they would be hearing from a lot of NIMBYs. 

“This is in my backyard, and I’m OK with it,” he said.

Pending decision

The $180 million LNG storage site will also require $3.4 million per year in maintenance costs, PRC chairman James Ellison said during a summary of the project plan at the outset of the hearing.

He was joined by the two other PRC commissioners, Gabriel Aguilera and Pat O’Connell, in advance of a formal hearing on the proposal on Dec. 4. The commissioners are expected to make a final decision early next year.

The NMGC proposal was in response to a PRC mandate to assess and evaluate its system following a cold snap in 2021 that caused home heating bills to spike. 

If approved by the PRC, construction would begin in 2025 and the facility would be operational before winter in 2026.

NMGC says that the storage facility would help provide a reliable supply of LNG and stabilize price fluctuation that most commonly occurs in the winter. The facility would be capable of storing 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas in liquid form. Equipment at the facility would also have the ability to both liquify natural gas into LNG and vaporize LNG back into natural gas when needed. 

Second to Texas

While the storage facility would be connected to NMGC’s existing pipeline system, tanker trucks will also use the location to fill up for distribution to other parts of the state. NMGC currently uses a LNG storage facility across the border in Texas.

That was a point Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jerry Schalow said didn’t get enough attention.

“Texas gets dibs on natural gas before we do, leaving us second,” he said.

Ernie C’deBaca, president and CEO of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, also said a storage facility in New Mexico was “better than relying on Texas.” 

Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said New Mexico should embrace the lessons learned from the severely cold February of 2011 when supply was limited and the 2021 cold snap.

“It’s important not only for economic development but also natural gas customers,” she said. 

Bruce Stidworthy, chairman of that chamber’s board, said he had confidence in NMGC and that the project would bring jobs to the area. An experienced engineer, Stidworthy said the design process was solid, the location was good, and LNG storage facilities have a good track record.

“This project makes sense,” he said.

Representatives with the Gallup/McKinley County and Roswell/Chaves County chambers, as well as the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce also chimed in with support over Zoom before the hearing was paused for a break.

People before profit 

By then, a number of plain folk had given counter arguments to the plan, one local student appealing for the board to consider “people before profit.”

A few others with student groups at UNM expressed their opposition, as did millennial homeowner Madigan Rae.

“This is not an energy source that needs pursuing,” she said of natural gas. “We need to be investing in solar and solar energy projects.”

Jim McKenzie, who’s with the 350 New Mexico, warned of the danger of greenhouse gasses and noted that NMGC’s projections assumed a flat demand curve, “and we know there’s a big push to reduce fossil fuels.”

Russ Poggensee, with the Santa Fe Village Neighborhood Association in Taylor Ranch, couldn’t understand why the proposed location was so near a populous area. He worried about reduced property values and truck traffic going to and from the plant.

Mitchell Friedman of Rio Rancho focused on the potential danger.

“The risk of explosion is real,” he said, citing an explosion at a LNG storage facility in Washington state in 2014.

He also said chamber leader Cole was mistaken in believing the LNG facility would be good for business

“That’s ridiculous!” he said. “People don’t wait to put their company next to an LNG plant that could blow up.”

Several others talked of potential leaks or accidents that could make people downwind from the facility susceptible to severe health risks. The proposed site is within 4 miles of Volcano Vista High School and 3 miles from Petroglyph Park.

One man said natural gas used to be thought of as a “bridge fuel,” but not anymore. He said we shouldn’t be investing in such a bad pollutant anymore. Green, sustainable energy was the way to go.

“Our future is in your hands,” he said.

Political issue

Also supporting NMGC’s plan was Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block, a Republican from Rio Rancho planning a run for state Senate. He also said he was confident NMGC would build a safe facility that would provide reliable energy to customers. He noted that the company has already met with first responders about the potential risks.

Current state Sen. Bobby Gonzales, a northern New Mexico Democrat, recalled the bitter cold in 2011 when families in rural areas couldn’t get their natural gas tanks filled. “We can’t afford another winter like that,” he said.

Not all politicians are in favor of the plan, however. 

Earlier this month, the Bernalillo County Commission voted 4-1 to oppose the plan, since it would be built so close to Albuquerque neighborhoods. 

In addition, 14 legislators recently sent a letter to PRC commissioners opposing the plan, according to NM Political Report.
Members of the public can still provide input by visiting the PRC website, Reference the case number: 22-00309-UT.

TS Last, editor

TS Last is the editor of the Corrales Comment and senior contributor to the Sandoval Signpost. A 25-year veteran of New Mexico news, he previously served as the editor of the Journal North in Santa Fe and has worked in the newsrooms of the El Defensor Chieftan and Valencia News Bulletin.

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