A conversation on biomass elicited a standing ovation for Arizona Corporation Commissioner Lea Márquez Peterson at the July 27 Gila County Republican meeting.

Local elected officials accounted for a big chunk of the 50-member audience, including Shirley Dye and Jim Muhr of the Northern Gila County Sanitary District; Andy McKinney, Star Valley council member; Jim Ferris and Barbara Underwood, Payson council members; Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd and Supervisor Woody Cline.

As pinyon nuts pinged off of the steel roof of the Rumsey Park ramada and a breeze blew between socially distanced attendees (many wore masks), Márquez Peterson asked for the vote of the assembled Republicans.

Appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey and facing her first election, Márquez Peterson has already championed a commission mandate to create a market for burning biomass. A Republican, she comes from the Tucson area.

The commission rejected the mandate before her appointment. She pushed for a reconsideration, citing Payson Roundup stories about the impact of rejecting the mandate on the prospects for clearing 2 million acres of overgrown forests. Those thinning projects would not only protect forested communities from crown fires, they would protect watersheds and billions of dollars’ worth of power lines. In California, power lines downed during wind whipped storms have started several fires that not only caused billions in damage, but bankrupted Pacific Gas and Electric.

The commission narrowly rejected Márquez Peterson’s plea to revisit the mandate.

The commission election in November could revive biomass and forest thinning projects, although Márquez Peterson is the only candidate who has taken a clear position in favor of burning biomass. The three Democrats running say they favor renewable energy mandates but haven’t taken a distinct position on mandates. The other Republican on the ballot and the Republican running a write-in campaign have so far opposed it.

Márquez Peterson also favors taking a second look at the recently granted rate increase for Arizona Public Service.

The commission is now revisiting the structure of the rate increase amidst complaints it produced a far larger profit than the commission intended.

Ducey appointed Márquez Peterson to fill Commissioner Andy Tobin’s seat when Tobin quit to go to work in the governor’s office.

Márquez Peterson now seeks election to continue her projects — biomass, broadband and working with “small mom and pop water companies.”

Rim Country has struggled under some of those small water companies that due to poor management ended up trucking in water then charging huge fees. The ACC controls how much these companies charge so they have enough capital to do needed upgrades and repairs to their equipment.

Márquez Peterson has no fears attacking the broadband issue, although the federal government regulates service. The federal jurisdiction complicates local communities’ efforts to improve their service.

“We have a limited authority ... to ensure we have 911 service,” she said of the small piece of the broadband pie the ACC can control.

Márquez Peterson also recognizes high-speed reliable broadband will spur economic development and improve health care, especially for rural communities through telehealth services.

To top all this off, the pandemic threw in a set of additional issues.

“Since March we have been having meetings with utilities ... to make sure they are keeping employees and customers safe during the pandemic,” she said.

But it’s her commitment to pushing for biomass that got the most attention.

Márquez Peterson approaches the issue from a cost-benefit analysis. She has facts and figures that add up the cost to restore the forest, watersheds and town infrastructure after a catastrophic fire.

“It’s millions and millions of dollars,” she said.

In November, she asked her fellow commissioners to discuss a vote to require a certain percentage of electrical power come from biomass. The vote failed.

She told the assembled Republicans she’s not done with biomass yet. She knows she just needs to answer Phoenix residents’ question, “Why do I care?”

Márquez Peterson’s answer, “The watershed would be greatly improved” with the removal of trees and vegetation that sucks up a lot of water.

Márquez Peterson sees how the Four Forest Restoration Initiative provides a structure to make biomass work. She’s attended meetings with the Forest Service to learn they have sent out a request for proposals to companies to clear forests for biomass, which gave hope to the audience. Many stood to give her applause.

Márquez Peterson will now take part in a rate case for APS to decide “if they are overcharging.”

She’ll take particular interest in whether the utility provided enough customer service to explain the complicated rate structure prior commissioners voted to implement.

Only two Republicans filed enough valid signatures to get on the ballot for the three open seats. Márquez Peterson urged primary voters to also write in Jim O’Conner — a Republican. If he gets enough write-in votes, he’ll go on to the general election.

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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