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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Waiting to Exhale - the climate change question

Someone last night sent me a message suggesting CO2 needed to be curbed in order to “heal the planet.”

Look, I’m no climate or green czar – they hire Communists for that position – but even with my limited high school science background, I can discern the difference between Carbon Monoxide (which is what comes out of the back of your SUV) and Carbon Dioxide, which is what comes out of your mouth when you exhale. Mr. Weintraub, our science teacher would drone on and on in that monotone voice about such subjects. I can even tell you without any doubt, those two gasses are very different from what comes out of a cow’s butt. That’s Methane. Methane is also in pig poop. I know that from watching Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome. In the Netherlands, a large farm is turning pig poop into electricity, just like in “Bartertown” in the Thunderdome movie.

Yep, they’re getting five thousand megawatts a year – from poop. But that’s a whole different story.

For this story, I got another odd message from a source, which shall remain nameless (unless they subject me to the caterpillar “boo-box” thing they’ve been using in terrorist interrogations, ‘cause that sounds real scary). Anyway, this second source suggested I look at PNM, the Public Service Company of New Mexico, regarding their withdrawal from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

And so I have. Unfortunately, like everything lately, the questions involved are more complicated than they might usually be. So for my international audience of readers, I need to lay down some background. We here in New Mexico generally suffer from a variety of woes. We have a twitchy infrastructure, we have water troubles, overdevelopment, we have difficulties attracting big business and thus creating real industry and lasting job security. And of course, we have the desert. In the summer it’s hot - real hot. And having households with below average incomes, means that the cheapest way to cool them is with swamp coolers.

A swamp cooler is an evaporative cooler, which uses a ½ to 1 hp motor to turn a fan, which sucks outside air through wet sponge pads, cooling it and sending it into the home. They can use a fair amount of electricity since they run all day and all night throughout Spring, Summer and part of Fall.

Now the issue with global warming is an interesting one. On the surface it seems simple, the Earth is being affected by industry and cars and executives and congressmen flying here and there in private jets – and there’s all these invisible “carbon footprints” being left by invisible giants stomping around through our atmosphere.

Just kidding about that last part - there’s no giants.

But there is a giant amount of research and data being dumped on the public. And so, in an unusually thoughtful mood for a government agency, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has decided to request a public hearing.

You see the USCOC is looking at the recent EPA findings, which state that greenhouse gasses endanger public health and welfare and should subsequently be regulated under the Clean Air Act. But the COC doesn’t believe the data involving “endangerment.”

The hearing they are requesting calls for a review of the endangerment science – not climate science. Interestingly, much of this debate seems centered around C02 (the stuff you exhale). Various groups like the Sierra Club originally jumped on the crazy train to try to force the regulation of CO2. I imagine we would all be expected to hold our breath and thus save the planet. Do it now. Big Brother commands it.

But now, according to an article by David Chavern at the USCOC, “no one, repeat no one, thinks that regulating CO2 under the CAA is a good idea – not the President, the Congress, or even the EPA.”

You may exhale and feel free to inhale as well.

Let’s set humor aside for a moment, though. I started writing this blog because of the ridiculous Cap-and-trade bill. I was stunned that something so obviously bad for people should be allowed to make it through even one side of Congress. Yet it did. Why? And why would an action, which would boost the electric bills of each household by more than $1500 annually, be given any credence whatsoever?

And why would PNM – New Mexico’s electric company – decide that it wants to circumvent the USCOC’s requested review of the data and presumably press ahead with its’ own course of action?

PNM spokesman Don Brown released a statement explaining that the company sees climate change as “the most pressing environmental and economic issue of our time. Given that view, and a natural time limit on both company time and resources, we have decided that we can be most productive by working with organizations that share our view…” PNM wants to operate without any dissent or conflicting points of view.

Brown identified Edison Electric Institute, the association of shareholder-owned electric companies and the U.S. Climate Action Partnership as groups friendly to their cause. The U.S. CAP he called “a group of businesses and environmental organizations. PNM is a founding member of that group.

“As a result,” wrote Brown “we have decided to let our membership in the U.S. Chamber lapse when it expires at the end of the year.”

As Nicholson said so eloquently through all that face paint “Hubba, hubba, hubba – who do you trust?”

Lets look at the reality of PNM’s connections first. When we investigate the company, we see a number of individuals connected to it, but really the first thing that jumps out is Cascade Investment LLC. That group is an investor into PNM. The sole member of Cascade is William H. Gates III.

Yep. Billy. The same Billy listed as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, the same Billy who is the director of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the same Billy who is co-founder, chairman and director of Microsoft Corporation.

Billy the Billionaire. I’m betting he doesn’t have a swamp cooler on his house.

But let’s cut Billy some slack, after all he’s a way better Billy than the beer-swilling Billy we had when Carter was in office. Let’s instead look at the Cascade Investment thingie. And dear reader, it is aptly named. It is a cascade.

Cascade is connected with the following: Pacific Ethanol, Republic Services Inc., ICO Global Communications (Holdings) Limited, GAMCO Investors Inc., Canadian National Railway Company, Western Asset Claymore US Treasury, Planetout Inc., and something called Fomento Economico Mexicano S.A. de C.V.

Call it a nose for the strange, but I decided to follow the scent through Fomento. What I found was a company involved in the distribution of Beer in Mexico. It’s a dead-end and just another investment Billy has made. It was heartwarming, though, and a bit nostalgic to find there’s a connection to beer with this Billy as well. Makes you feel like, in the current world climate, that the 70s never really left after all.

In any case, to follow the other side of the PNM background, I decided to look into some of the other connections. One of them is Adelmo E. Archuleta, director of the Bank of Albuquerque, President and CEO of Molzen-Corbin and Associates, and director of a children’s science museum. Another connection to PNM is Manuel T. Pacheco, a director of the company. Pacheco shows up as president of the University of Houston, the University of Missouri, the University of Arizona and interim president of the New Mexico Highlands University. Charles McMahen, also a PNM director, is also listed as a chairman of the University of Houston.

Robert M. Price, a director at PNM is also into tech and data corporations. Woody L. Hunt, another director is into building and something called the University of Texas Investment Management Company. Bonnie S. Reitz is into airlines – specifically Eos Airlines, Inc. Julie A Dobson shows up as chair at TeleBright and director at Safeguard Scientifics and LCCI, as well as COO of Telecorp PCS.

But Jeffry E. Sterba gets the prize. A chairman and CEO of PNM he was also a director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Edison Electric Institute - more on that group in a moment. But we’ve come full-circle, as we so often do here in New Mexico.

Still, with the number of universities being mentioned here, you might think that perhaps PNM’s board was basing their decision to break away from USCOC on cutting-edge research – that maybe they knew something USCOC didn’t. You might think that some of those Pacheco or McMahen connections – the University of Houston, University of Missouri, University of Arizona or New Mexico Highlands, have a corner on green research.

Nope. They don’t.

Grist.org lists 15 colleges leading the way in "green." They are in order of the deepest shade of “green” to the lightest: College of the Atlantic, Middlebury College, Earth University, Evergreen State College, Oberlin College, Harvard University, University of British Columbia, California State University, Tufts University, Leeds University, Green Mountain College, Yale University, Aquinas College, Glasgow University and the University of Maryland. Pacheco’s folks don’t even come close to rating.

So what’s the rub? Where’s the motivation for jumping off the USCOC ship?

Please examine the comment from the PNM spokesman. He mentions Edison Electric Institute. That organization was a donor to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2008, but has an interesting Senior Vice President. His name is Brian Wolff. Wolff was executive director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and he was also something else…Nancy Pelosi’s political director. Ruth G. Shaw of the Edison Electric Institute is connected to several power companies, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and Wachovia Corporation – and they are into everything.

So what’s the rub? It’s really what it always is in New Mexico – money and politics and power.

It’s just that this time the power thing is going to directly affect my swamp cooler – and of course, my electric bill as the folks involved with PNM try to push forward the administration’s agenda and jack up the cost of electricity, creating yet another re-distribution of wealth – from those of us who have very little to those who already have quite a lot.

I guess I could always pop across the boarder into Mexico and buy some of that new Billy Beer.

That'd probably make me feel better - and I'll bet their electricity will still be on.

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