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La Plata Electric’s energy supplier funded firm that fought clean air rules

Industry group subject of congressional investigation
La Plata Electric Association’s wholesale energy supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, is a member of the Utility Air Regulatory Group, an industry group known for its work to fight the Clean Air Act.

La Plata Electric Association’s wholesale energy supplier is one of more than 20 companies that funded a lobbying firm devoted to fighting environmental protections.

The lobbying firm, Utility Air Regulatory Group, is facing a congressional investigation because its former employees are now officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, where they may be continuing to serve the interests of utility companies, according to a news release from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The Utility Air Regulatory Group is a secretive organization that was run out of the law firm Hunton & Williams and is known for fighting Clean Air Act rules, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. The Clean Air Act governs the emissions of air pollutants, such as mercury.

LPEA’s wholesale energy supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, paid $167,418 in 2017 to Hunton & Williams, according to Politico, a national news outlet. It was one of more than 20 industry groups and utility companies, including some of the largest coal-burning power producers, that collectively paid the law firm $8.2 million in 2017.

About 48 percent of Tri-State’s power comes from coal, according to the Center for New Energy Economy.

Politico also reported an employee for Hunton & Williams, Bill Wehrum, is now working for the EPA as an assistant administrator in charge of issues, including climate change, smog and power plants’ mercury pollution.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce is now investigating the Utility Air Regulatory Group and whether attorneys who formerly represented the group, including Wehrum, are continuing to serve the interests of utility companies while working at the EPA.

As part of the investigation, the committee sent a letter to Tri-State this month asking for the source of funds the co-op sends to the Utility Air Regulatory Group.

The letter is also seeking all documents exchanged between employees of Tri-State and specified current or former EPA employees, among other communications and documents.

In addition to Tri-State participating in the Utility Air Regulatory Group as a member, a Tri-State official has a held a leadership role with the group.

Tri-State’s Senior Vice President of Policy and Chief Compliance Officer Barbara Walz served on the policy council and steering committee for the Utility Air Regulatory Group, according to her bio on the University of North Dakota website. She has served on the group policy council since 2005 and on the steering committee since 2010.

Tri-State is a member of the Utility Air Regulatory Group because the group allows Tri-State to have access to industry-wide information and public comment processes that facilitate Tri-State’s compliance with the Clean Air Act, said Lee Boughey, a Tri-State spokesman.

He said the co-op looks forward to responding to the questions from the federal committee. Tri-State’s responses are due this week.

Several residents expressed concern about Tri-State’s role in funding the Utility Air Regulatory Group at LPEA’s board meeting this month because of the industry group’s role fighting pollution regulations.

Jeff Bork was among those who spoke to the board expressing his distaste for Tri-State’s support of the Utility Air Regulatory Group.

“This is just a classic case of Tri-State doing what it wants and a lack of oversight by the Tri-State board,” he said, in an interview with The Durango Herald.

He called on the LPEA board to reaffirm its support for the Clean Air Act and asked the co-op to work with other members of Tri-State to audit its spending on advertising and lobbying.

He would also like to see LPEA file a complaint against Tri-State with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for its spending on the Utility Air Regulatory Group.

“Tri-State is spending our money to undermine our interests,” he said.

LPEA and its board members were notified by Tri-State about the congressional investigation, CEO Mike Dreyspring said. However, the co-op has not taken any action yet to express any views to Tri-State, he said.

LPEA board member Guinn Unger said it was possible the co-op would wait for the investigation to play out before taking action.

After the announcement of the congressional investigation, at least eight utilities that were members of the Utility Air Regulatory Group, including Arizona Public Service, have left the group, according to several news reports.

San Juan Citizens Alliance Executive Director Mark Pearson said he would like to see Tri-State also end its membership in the group as well.

“Lobbying to eliminate air pollution standards is contrary to the concerns of much of the membership here at LPEA,” he said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story erred in calling Political a national nonprofit news outlet. It is a for-profit company.

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