OUT WEST ROUNDUP | Groups challenge plan to abandon coal-fired plant; Montana bill would ban abortion coverage | Coronavirus


Groups challenge plan to dump coal-fired power plant

ALBUQUERQUE — Environmentalists are challenging an effort by New Mexico’s largest electric provider to abandon its interest in a coal-fired power plant that provides power to customers in New Mexico and Arizona, arguing that the plan would violate New Mexico’s landmark energy law.

In a filing Jan. 28 with state regulators, New Energy Economy and Citizens for Fair Rates and the Environment argue that the statute prohibits fossil fuel-fired plants from being reassigned or sold as a means of complying with renewable energy standards.

They also say Public Service Co. of New Mexico’s application for abandonment of the Four Corners Power Plant is incomplete because it doesn’t give notice or provide testimony about whether a proposed sale of PNM’s share to the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. would result in a net public benefit.

The two groups along with other environmentalists contend that the early exit plan has no real environmental benefits since the tribal company and other co-owners — including Arizona Public Service — would continue operating Four Corners through 2031.

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Public Service Co. of New Mexico’s abandonment request also seeks to recover $300 million it has invested in Four Corners using low-cost bonds that would be paid off by utility customers.

Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, said the Energy Transition Act’s greatest selling point was to shift the state from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The utility has argued that using low-cost bonds to recover its investments and replacing the coal with cheaper renewable generation could save customers anywhere from $30 million to $300 million over time compared to remaining in Four Corners until 2031.

Virgin Galactic sets rocket-powered flight test date

LOS ANGELES — Virgin Galactic has set the date for a rocket-powered test flight this month in southern New Mexico following work to correct a problem that prevented ignition on its last attempt.

The flight window will open Feb. 13, with opportunities to fly through the remainder of the month, the company said in a statement Feb. 1.

The spaceship will be flown by two pilots and carry research payloads under a NASA program.

The problem occurred Dec. 12 on what was planned to be the spacecraft’s first flight into space from New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

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Instead, its computer triggered a fail-safe scenario that prevented ignition and the craft safely glided to a landing.

The test program is working toward the start of commercial passenger flights from Spaceport America.

The spacecraft made two previous suborbital space flights over the Southern California desert, where it was developed and built.


Ban on insurance coverage for abortion considered

HELENA — The Montana House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 29 advanced a bill that would ban the coverage of abortion procedures by health insurance plans offered through the state exchange.

The Republican-backed bill would prohibit coverage except in cases when the life of the mother is endangered. Abortion would not be covered by the plans when pregnancies are the result of rape or incest.

The 12-7 vote with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed came a day after President Joe Biden instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to consider rescinding Trump administration regulations that bar federally funded family planning clinics from referring women for abortions.

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Supporters of the Montana bill have said taxpayer dollars should not pay for a procedure that some find reprehensible. Opponents said turning the bill into law would make abortion out of reach for low-income Montana families.

The committee hearing on the bill came a day after Gov. Greg Gianforte, the state’s first Republican governor in 16 years, signaled his support for placing restrictions on abortion access in the state.

Gianforte promised he would sign at least two of four abortion-related bills already advanced by the Montana House, including one that would ban abortion in most cases after 20 weeks of gestation and one that would require abortion providers to care for fetuses born alive during abortion procedures.


State wants to return $2M worth of hydroxychloroquine

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma attorney general’s office is attempting to return $2 million worth of a malaria drug once touted by former President Donald Trump as an effective treatment for COVID-19, a spokesman said Jan. 27.

Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for Attorney General Mike Hunter, said Hunter is attempting to negotiate a return of the 1.2 million hydroxychloroquine pills Oklahoma acquired in April from a California-based supplier, FFF Enterprises. He said the office was acting on a request from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, which authorized the purchase.

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A spokeswoman for FFF Enterprises didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.

The attempt by Oklahoma to return the hydroxychloroquine was first reported by the online news publication The Frontier.

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt defended the purchase last year, saying the drug was showing some promise as a treatment in early March and he didn’t want to miss an opportunity to acquire it.

The drug has since been shown to have little or no effect on severe cases of COVID-19, and a former state health official chalked up Oklahoma’s purchase to something that happens in “the fog of war.”


New supercomputer to rank among world’s fastest

CHEYENNE — A new supercomputer in Wyoming will rank among the world’s fastest and help study phenomena including climate change, severe weather, wildfires and solar flares.

Houston-based Hewlett Packard Enterprise won a bid to provide the $35 million to $40 million machine for a supercomputing center in Cheyenne, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, announced Jan. 27.

The HPE-Cray EX supercomputer will theoretically be able to perform almost 20 quadrillion calculations per second — 3.5 times faster than the existing machine at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center.

The new machine’s maximum speed per second will be roughly equivalent to each person on Earth completing a math equation every second for an entire month.

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That power will enable some of the most sophisticated simulations yet of large-scale natural and human-influenced events.

The supercomputer should rank among the world’s 25 fastest after it’s installed this year and goes into operation in early 2022.

The facility’s current supercomputer, named Cheyenne, is over three times faster than its predecessor, which was named Yellowstone.

A contest among Wyoming schoolchildren will decide the new supercomputer’s name.

City cuts down century-old cottonwoods showing signs of decay

Casper lost four of its oldest residents last month.

The city removed four cottonwood trees — each estimated to be about a century old — from City Park near downtown Casper.

In a news release Jan. 29, the city said it took down the trees because they were dying and were going to become a threat to public safety. The City of Casper Parks Department removed the cottonwoods.

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The city was monitoring the trees because of their age and signs of declining health. During a strong wind storm in summer 2020, several large branches fell, the city said.

Most tree removals occur in the winter, the city said. Replacements can then take place shortly thereafter. The city will replace the trees in the spring as part of its Arbor Day celebration, according to the news release.

Hallock encouraged Casper residents to monitor their older trees for signs of poor health, including: “curling and discolored leaves, branch die back, peeling or damaged bark, hollows in the trunk or branches, and insect presence.”

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