Sunday, June 17, 2018

Asylum: a Case History

We always say Nazis and East German Communists should have said “No!” to commands from the armies of their dictatorships. But how do we treat someone who has sufficient conviction and guts to say “No!” to a dictator we abhor?

Venezuela descended into a crazy dictatorship. We've imposed sanctions; The OAS accuses the Maduro regime of “crimes against humanity,” and the International Criminal Court is investigating human rights abuses. The U.S. calls the dictatorship “a failed state,” and our Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, is talking about “regime change.”

So imagine you're Helegner Ramón Tijera Moreno, a Venezuelan soldier. You agree that the Maduro regime is beyond the pale, a dictatorship destroying its people. You try to resign from the army. The response is physical and psychological abuse. Finally you flee to the U.S., a bastion of freedom and a strong opponent of the evil you're resisting. You don't sneak in. You present yourself to Border Patrol at a port-of-entry in El Paso. It's September 2016. You figure you'll get a fair hearing, maybe get asylum, and at worst get help relocating elsewhere.

Good luck! 
 
You don't know that the rate of denials of asylum cases in El Paso (95%) is one of the nation's highest. 
 
You don't expect your U.S. ally to keep you in prison. At your hearing, you don't expect the hearing judge and the prosecutor to tell you to go back to Venezuela, face desertion charges, and be tortured. (Under a new law, they could jail you 10-20 years just for your political opinions.) The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the OAS human rights arm have issued resolutions saying no one should be involuntarily repatriated to Venezuela.

You appeal. Even so, ICE takes you to an airport and attempts to deport you. You tell them you want a lawyer. ICE says “no te queremos acá” [“We don't want you here!”] and stops short of deporting you only because your lawyer provides proof of your pending appeal.

Helegner remains in jail, with no release imminent, and may even be deported despite his pending appeal. I have no basis for saying how that appeal should come out; but under our laws and traditions, Helegner deserves to be heard.

Why are we treating this man so badly, when his only mistake was to resist a dictatorship we say he should resist and to believe that our rhetoric might have some meaning?

It makes no sense. The law and simple humanitarian values would suggest treating him better and at least trying to help resettle him elsewhere if his asylum appeal is denied. Our treaties regarding refugees may legally require us to treat him better than we have. Logically, he doesn't deserve to be in jail, since he did not even enter the country illegally. Add to that the fact that our government purports to be against the Maduro regime, and has even said it won't recognize the results of a recent sham election, and we should want to encourage Venezuelans who agree with us.

ICE won't tell me what it's thinking. But one quick guess is that the ethos within ICE (to which Mr. Trump's regime is one contributing factor) is so mindlessly, almost viciously anti-immigrant that no one stops to make a reasoned decision, let alone a wrongly reasoned one. So a guy rots in jail for doing what we think is right.

Please, guys, not in our name!
                                                                  -30-

[The above column appeared this morning, Sunday, 17 June 2018, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, as well as on the newspaper's website and on KRWG's website.  A spoken version will air periodically on KRWG Radio and on KTAL-LP, 101.5 FM, our community radio station (streamable at www.lccommunityradio.org.]

[I have not researched the law on this, but our conduct toward Mr. Tijera Moreno seems likely to have violated U.S. law.  The U.S. has entered into treaties meant to ensure the protection and safe passage of refugees. These include the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. Under these, which the U.S. has implemented with laws and regulations, the United States may not return an individual to a country where he or she faces persecution from a government or a group the government is unable or unwilling to control based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. A separate treaty, known as the Convention Against Torture, prohibits the return of people to a country where there are substantial grounds to believe they may be tortured.   Without prejudging Mr. Tijera Moreno's case, there does at least seem to be "substantial grounds to believe [he] may be tortured" if returned to Venezuela. ]

[A friend emailed me to comment:

 Since I'm not aware of the facts of the case presented in today's column, I'll assume your point is well taken.  With regard to your assessment of Venezuela, I suggest you contact Jimmy Carter and ask his assessment.  Having had a long term curiosity about Latin America, I think the only dictatorships in Latin America have the Made in America stamp of approval.  They always let Wall Street loot their countries.  Mr Carter is competent in Spanish, has shown a deep interest and understanding of the area and has participated in international audits of the Venezuelan elections since 2000.  His assessment might be very interesting.  Take care and thanks once again for all your efforts to help us.

I appreciate the comment.   Certainly there's a long history of the U.S. supporting Latin American dictatorships and opposing (even destroying) regimes that have more interest in their people's well-being and less in accommodating the United Fruit Company.  Consider Nicaragua, Chile, Cuba, and a host of other countries, during the past 75 years.  Cuba's example is instructive -- and vivid in my mind because I was 12 or 13 in 1959, when Castro led the rebellion against the dictator Batista.  As we often did in those days, we (a) misread any nationalism, or desire for independence, as hostility to us, and (b) assumed that hostility to us meant alliance with the Soviet Union, and (c) in this manner and by overreacting, pushed independent leaders into the arms of our enemies.  (That's clearest, of course, in the example of Ho Chi Minh and Viet Nam.)  I also lived -- breathlessly -- through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I certainly was and am glad the missiles went away.   I do not know whether Castro would have looked to the Soviet Union for support if we had not been so hostile to Cuban independence from our domination.   Certainly while he may have been personally ambitious, and some reports say he was always too ideological, he cared about the welfare of the common person in Cuba in a way Batista sure didn't.  And we didn't.  I remember from 1969 a pal who'd gone (illegally, I'm sure) to Cuba relating with wonder that Castro could walk among the people without the host of armed guards a U.S. President would need.  Without justifying everything Castro did during his long reign, I felt over the years that we'd have been wiser to come to terms with Castro's (yes, Communist) rule in Cuba and try to help Cubans by not trying to destroy the country's economy to accomplish regime change.  
Similarly for years Venezuela's leader, Chavez, though friendly to Castro and unfriendly to us, seemed to be doing (or trying to do) some very good things.  A friend, now dead, visited frequently.  A woman I knew went there frequently for medical treatment.  Venezuela treated refugees from neighboring Colombia (where civil war and drug activities were destroying the country) well, and tried to help other nations with medical care and such.
Without our sanctions and other activities, isolating Venezuela, would that country have prospered or failed?  Would it have become quite as dictatorial?  I frankly do not know.  I'll take my friend's advice and read Carter, and other sources.  
For right now, my best guess remains that at this point Venezuela is a failed state, and a dictatorship, and repressive, but I lack the knowledge to assess the relative shares of blame to assign to the various players, including the U.S.]

[I remember from my own youth that when we felt strongly we wanted ethnic equality and an end to segregation, or questioned the Viet Nam War, many older folks responded by calling us Communist or asking, "What are you, a Communist?"  (Somehow in 1970 or so a local service club, through the NMSU Journalism Department Chair, asked me to come and speak on how the disaffected young people like me felt about things.  I did.  I talked, not very eloquently but from my young heart, about seeing the pain of southern blacks, wanting peace, thinking we were making a huge and counterproductive mistake in Viet Nam.  Then at some point, when I paused, the first question -- asked in a tone of outrage -- was "Young man, do you realize that the alcoholism rate in Russia is three times what it is here?"  I hadn't mentioned the Soviet Union.  I surely wasn't arguing that its system was better than ours.  But that's how my questioning and criticisms sounded to him.)  
The Soviet Union posed a threat to us.  It was our enemy on the international stage.  But from whatever mix of fear, honest concern, venality, personal ambition, incompetence, and greed, our leaders did us a terrible disservice forcing every human dispute into the "Soviet Union vs. U.S." or "communism vs. capitalism" tension.  I like democracy, and never was a fan of the Soviet Union.  "Socialism" and "capitalism" are two extremes in the spectrum of economic systems.  To me, either extreme fails.  Socialism is a great idea, except that it fails to take account of some persistent human imperfections -- and, perhaps for that reason, never quite works for any substantial period.  (I wonder about Kerala, though.)   Pure capitalism is brutal, ugly, and inhumane, and encourages the worst in us, and also turns so much of everything, even in human relationships, into buying and selling and viewing everything in terms of "what is it worth to me?"]   



Sunday, June 10, 2018

Against the Wall -- a Stroll along the Border

We're at the border, to protest yet another federal stupidity. 

Behind the stage is the “new and improved” wall marking New Mexico's border with Old Mexico. We need no such wall, of course. Deer, mountain lions, and javelina need no such wall. The land looks the same on both sides, except that we've messed up our side.

This wall will waste money and our scarce water, and inhibit biological diversity – without really affecting drug trafficking. Drug cartels got plenty of ladders and digging tools. Animals don't.

This wall placates Donald Trump's ego. Along with DACA gamesmanship and separating families at the border, it symbolizes our arrogance – and indifference to others' suffering. 

The guitars and activism recall the 1960's. Then as now, spirited people fought for truths denied by the Washington elite.

It's different too. A white drone flies above us. I can see it's single eye. I resist the impulse to raise an impolite finger, assuming it's [U.S.] federal, though likely it belongs to Mexican TV. 

And there are many older folks. I rarely saw that in the 1960's. “Don't Trust Anyone over 30!” Now I've more than doubled 30. Most importantly, our community doesn't view us as traitors or pariahs for our anti-wall beliefs.

Amazingly, three days before the Primary, candidates Steve Fischmann, Billy Garrett, Bill McCamley, and Garrett VeneKlasen are here. They didn't come into the desert for votes. The few hundred here have likely voted for them already. Nor did they come for the waters. They came because, like us, they care. They're moved and saddened by the mistreatment of others – and by our leaders' contempt for nature.

It's no huge thing, to have driven to this lonely spot in the desert on a very hot day in June. I have no illusion that today will have much effect; but we need to be here. (In 1966, U.S. withdrawal from 'Nam seemed unlikely.)

People speak, movingly and not too long. People play music and sing and dance. 

City Councilor Gabe Vasquez speaks. Born in Juarez, highly articulate and hard-working, he's a living refutation of the kind of ethnic prejudice that energizes Trump & Co.

At the Border - After the Walk
Songs and speeches convey the pain and damage caused by separating families. Those separations make perfect sense if you assume that these people are our mortal enemies – Hitler's SS, or ISIS terrorists – so vile and dangerous that we are immersed in a total war against them. But what if they are families trying to survive, seeking better worlds for their kids, or possibly fleeing political violence and persecution? Sure, some are subject to deportation; but why inflict on them additional misery so unwarranted the U.N. is now condemning it? Looking at the quarters we house them in, I wonder if Joe Arpaio is in charge. 

The organizers give everyone a flower to leave on the wall. We walk several hundred yards west to where construction of the new wall is in progress. It's a good walk. Thought-provoking. Moving, particularly when folks start singing “This Land Is my Land.” I greet the Mexican Police, and wave, and they wave back. Mexican reporters interview people. 

Standing where this wall is being built, I imagine some day placing a small section of it beside the unprepossessing chunk of concrete (now serving as a doorstop) that was once part of the Berlin Wall. I hope that day comes soon.
                                                     -30-

At the Border - After the Walk II
[The above column appeared this morning, Sunday, 10 June 2018, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG's website.  A spoken version will air during the week on KRWG and on KTAL-LP, 101.5 FM.]

[I intentionally left my camera at home -- but did finally shoot a couple of images with the cell-phone, just before we left.  More photos -- not mine -- are available through a link in the next paragraph.]

[Here are links to: a source for additional information and news articles, Molly Molloy's photographs from the protest described in the column, a a Wa Po story on a judge calling the separation of families procedure "inhumane", "brutal", and "offensive,"  an Albuquerque Journal story on biologists' concerns about how the brder wall will affect wildliferder-wall-worries-wildlife-biologists.html, and a column pointing out thatwomen applying for asylum have no idea where their kids are.]

[One of the organizers, SWEC Founder and Director Kevin Bixby, penned this summary of the protest:
 
More than 400 people came out in the heat on Saturday to protest the new 20 miles of bollard wall going up west of Santa Teresa, NM. It was a powerful and moving event. Although mostly ignored by the media, it was important and needed to be done. You can see photos on SWEC's FB page as well as our partners'. 

We returned yesterday for a closer inspection of construction progress. By my calculations, about 3.5-4 miles have been completed, in three distinct segments (both ends, and 2.2 middle section). Assuming they started construction April 9, and have worked about 48 days since (they work on Saturdays), and if my math is correct, they are progressing at the rate of up to one mile every two weeks, which means they should finish in about 32 weeks/8 months, or by the end of January, 2019. I expect the pace of construction will pick up now that staging is over and the kinks have been worked out. It seems pretty assembly line at this point. But, there is still time to document wildlife presence and get an injunction.

-- 
Kevin Bixby, Executive Director
Southwest Environmental Center
275 North Main Street
Las Cruces, NM 88001
wildmesquite.org  ]
[Guess I also want to include this Facebook plea, passed on by Elise Sanchez:]

A note from a friend, Roberto Reveles:
We live at a time and place that challenges all of us, regardless of partisan label, religious affiliation or humanist ideals.
We began today’s Board of Supervisors meeting by publicly pledging fealty to a flag representative of our nation’s governing principles, followed by a call invoking a higher power for guidance to align those governing principles with a presumed belief in a common moral code.
And yet despite these pledges and invocations, there is in this vicinity and at this time a crisis of immense and unprecedented moral proportions occurring within our community.
In just the last month approximately 658 immigrant children, some 100 of them below age 4, have been separated from their parents through a new draconian policy announced by our federal government.
Here in Arizona and Florence, this morning some 60-plus innocent children, from age 1 to 10 are waking up in a detention cell, not knowing where their parents are and when, if ever, they will again see their parents.
This is an unprecedented crisis that challenges and questions how much we are truly committed to governing based on moral principles. Moral principles that are reflected in faith-based texts represented in our community: One text. "You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan.” Another biblical truism, “as much as you have done to one of these my little brothers, you have done that to me.”
I’m asking believers and non-believers to not succumb to the biblical admonition, that “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.”
Beyond religious texts and principles, civically, our global neighbors speaking through the United Nations human rights office, this week called on our government to immediately halt this inhumane policy, declaring that "The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles,"
I implore fellow Americans, to truly live by our professed biblical and patriotic teachings. Act today in opposition to this newly imposed immoral policy that is separating children from their parents as their immigration proceedings are taking place. Contact your representatives in the state legislature and in Congress to end this nightmarish treatment of helpless children.
Roberto A. Reveles
6/6/2018

[By contrast, here's a column by one of the few around here who think we need a bigger, better border wallclearly-define-what-ours/575330002/.
She seems to have misunderstood Robert Frost's poem, "Mending the Wall," in which he notes, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" -- the something being, perhaps, nature or time or karma -- and portrays a crusty neighbor quoting his father's wisdom that "Good fences make good neighbors."  Many, as she does, have taken that repeated line to be a precept the poet shares; but he doesn't.  In any case, she's equally off-base with regard to the facts.  Her basic argument seems to be that we need the wall to know what belongs to us and what belongs to someone else; but that's obviously a goal we can meet without closing off animals' ability to cross the border.   And without spending quite such a vast amount of money.  And I'll be interested to see whether, in her view, we also "need" to punish border-crossers, even those seeking asylum, inhumanely by separating families as we've recently been doing. ]

Sunday, June 3, 2018

2018 Primary -- VOTE TUESDAY!!

I voted Friday. 

In the county sheriff primary, I wish incumbent Kiki Vigil had only one challenger. Having talked to deputies and watched the department deteriorate, I hope Kiki – for whom I voted in 2014 – loses. With name recognition and four challengers, he probably won't; but Eddie Lerma and Kim Stewart, two very different candidates, offer the best chances. Lerma has extensive local law-enforcement experience, and law-enforcement endorsements, while Stewart offers new ideas and extensive law-enforcement experience elsewhere. 

Last-minute information strengthened my preference for Steve Fischmann in the PRC race, despite annoying ads from both sides. We have a clear choice between a public-interest candidate (Fischmann) who'll fight for a fair shake from the utilities and for faster progress toward renewables at fair prices, and current PRC Chair Sandy Jones. Jones seems too close to regulated utilities. He complains that environmental groups concerned about climate change are backing Fischmann; but Jones is getting huge backing from companies that benefit from his decisions. PNM, a major utility he regulates, dropped $440,000 this month on a PAC that's been inundating us with misleading mailers against Fischmann. Officially, Jones has no connection with “New Mexicans for Progress.” But a PRC source has described seeing top PNM officials visiting with Jones in his office before meetings. Judging from Jones's mailer attacking Merrie Lee Soules the Saturday before the 2014 primary, expect a similarly misleading attack on Fischmann.

I voted for Xochitl Torres-Small for Congress – with great delight. I'll strongly support either Democrat against any of the Republicans; but I know and trust Xochitl. Years ago I thought she'd be a great candidate for this seat. 

Nothing against Mad Hildebrandt. However, recently, she seems to be on the attack over Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) interest in Xochitl.  Instead of attacking Xochi because the DCCC sees in her what a lot of us see, Mad should focus on issues and how Dems take back this seat. DCCC apparently has not contributed money during the primary.  Almost all of the "Top Donors" to Mad's campaign, as listed on the Secretary of State's website, are out-of-staters, mostly in tech. [Note: this paragraph was changed as a result of my further review of it, sparked by a complaint from Mad.  The paragraph apparently overstated the amount of her out-of-state support, for which I apologize.]

Land Commissioner is a far more important job than folks realize. Garrett VeneKlasen and Stephanie Garcia Richard are viable candidates, the former the favorite of environmental groups. George Muñoz, who voted against banning coyote-killing contests, doesn't deserve our votes. He's raging at conservation groups now, calling them “special-interest groups” because their concern about our environment makes them leery of him. 

I voted for Bill McCamley, a dream candidate for state auditor. I voted for Billy Garrett for Lieutenant-Governor because he's the real deal. Deputy County Assessor Paul Ponce has learned the job in eight years as deputy, and deserves our votes. I voted for Micaela Lara Cadeña for State Rep. I recommend Karen Trujillo, who seems likely to be a thoughtful, responsive, and responsible commissioner for District 5. (Delighted so many capable young women running!) 

Many great folks have worked hard. Please vote – thoughtfully.
                                                -30-

[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 3 June 2018, in  the Las Cruces Sun-News, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG's website.  A spoken version will be aired on KRWG and on KTAL-LP, 101.5 FM during the week.]

[Do want to emphasize appreciation for all local candidates, who ran good races.  A lot of votes were tough decisions between or among good candidates.  And from what I saw, a lot of the races were run in a positive way, with each candidate mostly promoting himself or herself, and her or his ideas and positions, rather than attacking each other.  (The PRC race was an unseemly exception.)]

[With regard to the PRC: as I mentioned in the column, Mr. Jones is not legally permitted to coordinate activities with the PNM PAC, and we should presume he's not breaking the law.  However, the very size, nature, and timing of the donations are extremely telling.  For PNM to contribute $440,000 in two weeks' time is unusual -- unprecedented, so far as I can tell -- which means PNM really cares about this one.  (The money is also going to support another PRC incumbent up north against challenger Janine Yazzi.)  PNM would stand to make millions of dollars more in the next few years under a Jones-led PRC than a PRC with Fischmann on it.  
I discuss the PNM funding of New Mexicans for Progress, and include some PNM documents, in a post from yesterday, Saturday.  [To reach that material, either page down or click here. ]

[Should note that just as PNM jumped on the scales in the PRC race, two big oil-and-gas companies jumped into the Land Commissioner race to support Muñoz.  There too, conservationists have been supporting Garrett VeneKlasen or Stephanie Garcia-Richard.  It'll be interesting to see how the industries' huge media show will affect the voting.   (Thanks again, Citizens United!)]





Saturday, June 2, 2018

"Regulated" Utility Gives Big Bucks to PRC "Regulators"

[this post is a DRAFT pending time to proof it]

PNM, a major utility regulated by the PRC, dropped $440,000 just this month into a PAC heavily supporting Sandy Jones and Linda Lovejoy in this year's two PRC races.   An Albuquerque Journal story over the weekend discusses that and the last-minute rush of oil companies to support Land Commission candidate George Muñoz.  In each case the utilities and oil companies are seeking to kill off the growing popularity of a more progressive candidate (Steve Fischmann here and Janene Yazzie in Navajo country) the big companies feel threatens their outsized profits.


For PNM to contribute $440,000 in two weeks' time is unusual -- unprecedented, so far as I can tell.  The only time this specific entity (PNM Resources) had previously been used this way in New Mexico was to give a much smaller amount to the Republican Campaign Committee in 2010.  Since, PNM has contributed a lot of political money, to prominent Republicans and Democrats who can help it -- but in far smaller amounts, so far as I can tell. 
 
The big bucks would seem to mean PNM really cares about this one.  It stands to make millions of dollars more in the next few years under a Jones-led PRC than a PRC with Fischmann (and Yazzie) on it.  Jones has overruled hearing examiners (and the PRC counsel's advice) to back PNM's wishes in some recent 3-2 votes, two of them now on appeal to the New Mexico Supreme Court.  [Interestingly, the PNM-funded PAC immediately paid big bucks to Republican Susana Martinez's chief political guru to make things happen -- and the things so far have included costly TV ads (allegedly misleading) and a bunch of mailers.)

All this makes for some weird stuff: for example, when a mailer from the PNM-funded PAC says Jones "saves New Mexicans money by successfully advocating for lower utility rates,"  that essentially means a company that likes utility rates to make it a solid profit is paying to tell you to vote for a guy who will lower those rates.  The company that fights hard before the PRC to get a higher percentage of our money is paying for mailers stating that their favored candidate "successfully advocates for lower energy rates to keep prices down and more of your hard-earned money in your pocket."  The utility that fought renewable energy in various ways for years is advertising a PRC candidate as protecting our environment by ensuring use of 20% renewables by 2020.
To put it another way, all this advertising says the candidate is "standing up for consumers."   He makes decisions that raise or lower utility income and lower or raise what we pay.  How does knowing the utility is paying big bucks to re-elect him affect one's reading of those mailers?

The contributing PNM entity's statement stressed the legality of the contributions under current law, and asserted that the contributions also were appropriate:

"PNM Resources' participation is legal, appropriate, and necessary to help ensure a fair election.  Important policy decisions will be made by our next generation of elected officials, and we want to ensure that voters have the information to understand each candidate's position on key public policy issues.  PNM Resources' shareholders are funding the company's participation in New Mexicans for Progress."
Others have questioned the "appropriateness" of such a huge contribution.  New Energy Economy spokesperson Mariel Nanasi called it "shocking," while Yazzi said it was designed to retain regulators who don't regulate.

Mr. Jones is not legal permitted to coordinate activities with the PNM PAC.  We should presume he's not breaking the law.   However, he's close to some top PNM execs.  A PRC source (unidentified for obvious reasons, but someone I spoke to at length) says certain PNM people often visit with Mr. Jones before PRC meetings.  (That doesn't necessarily mean they're discussing anything they shouldn't, of course.)  And Mariel Nanasi reports seeing PNM lobbyists at a Jones fundraiser on February 5th.  And around the time PNM made its last-minute contributions, Jones was complaining of the large influx of money from environmental and consumer-oriented groups favoring his opponent.

And it's interesting to read an internal PNM memo from 2014, when Jones was running for this PRC seat:


That is, in 2014, according to a PNM executive, Mr. Jones responded to news of an endorsement by saying "he could use some help with the campaign."  The exec, uncertain whether that was an actual request "for PNM's help considering the delicate situation regarding helping those that regulate us", passed it upward.  The "delicate situation," I think, is that it's illegal under New Mexico law.  I stress that the PNM exec wrote in the memo that he wasn't sure that saying Jones could use some help with the campaign was an actual request for help, and therefore we shouldn't jump to any conclusion either.  
In any case, it's interesting that Jones "really liked Ron [Darnell, a PNM Senior VP] and that Ron has helped him better understand the utility business."  Some of that help in understanding the utility business might have included this letter:

What that seems to say is that Mr. Jones had been asking how our homeowners' solar panels are affecting PNM's bottom-line.  The utility tells him that the impact was just $352,855 (in lost fixed costs recovery) in 2010, but has risen under rules helping develop renewables, and will reach nearly six and a half million dollars by 2016.  I can't imagine PNM thought that impact was a really great thing -- but here it is in 2018 advertising a candidate based on the fact that he's pushing renewables along.

Interesting.  Kind of sad, from my point of view. 


 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

PRC II - Why I'll Vote for Steve Fischmann

Let's step back from the exaggerations and insults of political campaigns and imagine we're on the selection committee to pick between finalists for a job. Say, Sandy Jones and Steve Fischmann for Public Regulation Commissioner.

Both are smart and capable. Fischmann had a business career with Levi Strauss, then was a responsive and thoughtful state senator here. I met Jones years ago. He was congenial and clearly a problem-solver; and he's now had extensive experience as a PRC commissioner.

Whom I'd choose is related to the PRC's current situation (see last column) -- and not because I want to blame Chairman Jones for everything. Many problems preceded him, some are budget related, and others systemic. 

In my inexpert view, the key issues facing the PRC are: equalizing the conflict between huge utilities (and subcontractors) and ratepayers (and the public interest); moving rapidly toward greater use of renewables and a more distributed system; improving PRC morale; and increasing public trust in the Commission. 

On those, Fischmann seems the better choice. 

Fischmann advocates for the public (opposing usurious loan sharks), the environment, and PRC ratepayers. Jones has done some good things at the PRC but appears uncomfortably close to those he regulates. 

Jones criticizes Fischmann for contributions from intervenors, and also says Fischmann's campaign and independent PAC's collaborate illegally. Fischmann criticizes Jones for getting much of his campaign funding from folks who stand to benefit from PRC decisions, such as Affordable Solar. (The Secretary of State is referring these complaints to the AG. We may hear nothing before June 5.)

I'm not convinced either has broken the law; but given the tilted playing field that favors utilities, I'm less comfortable with Mr. Jones's contributors. Jones's campaign consultant in 2014 was a lobbyist for Affordable Solar. Jones recently voted to overturn a hearing examiner's conclusion that PNM and Affordable, without fair bidding, reached a deal that cost ratepayers too much. 

Jones says he favors solar. He's done some things to help make that happen, but also been instrumental in approving nonrenewable power plants that may not have been as necessary or sensible as the utilities convinced a PRC majority they were. Jones recognizes we're headed toward solar; but if I'm right that we're on the cusp of real change – a lot more renewables and decentralization, soon – I think Fischmann has the vision to help us get there. (Environmental groups, some from outside the state, concerned about climate change are contributing heavily to PAC's that support Fischmann. Jones says he's being significantly outspent. Ironically, he may well be.)

A National Regulatory Research Institute evaluation and some interviews indicate that morale is a serious problem. Part of that is funding (the Legislature's responsibility); but part of it is what the report calls perceived “lack of respect for staff by commissioners and others” and what another source says are too many decisions overruling hearing examiners in favor of utilities. And although I like Jones, I've heard very negative views from the (admittedly small sample of) people who've communicated with me. They may be malcontents; but his response to the NRRI evaluation is excessively defensive. I wish he'd let the Commission discuss the evaluation with the evaluator. 

It seems a time for change. Both men are effective. Fischmann recognizes the urgency of doing all we reasonably can do to diminish our collective energy footprint – and give ratepayers a fairer shake. And that's the job!
                                                -30-
[The above column appeared Sunday, 27 May 2018, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG's website.  A spoken version will air during the week on KRWG and on KTAL-LP, 101.5 FM (and streaming on www.lccommunityradio.org.)]

[Bottom line: I'll vote for Steve Fischmann, for the reasons stated in these two columns.  Also, here's something called the Energy and Policy Institute's take on this.] 

[I'm hoping to discuss some of the issues -- the PNM deal that's on appeal and the EPE proposal discussed below -- on my Wednesday morning radio show, "Speak Up, Las Cruces!" (on KTAL-LP) during at least part of the 9-10 a.m. hour with Mariel Nanasi, head of intervenor / watchdog New Energy Economy and a representative of Affordable Solar.  They'll both be telephone guests, which could make the traffic management a little complex, but I look forward to the discussion.  The 8-9 hour we'll discuss the various primary races.  Walt Rubel and I, and one or two others, and (I hope) phone calls from you, too.  (575) 526-KTAL (-5825)]


[Most recently, EPE has submitted a bid similar to the PNM bid that's on appeal.  New Energy Economy has intervened in protest.  Like the PNM deal -- in which PNM wanted the deal done on land it owned, so it could own the facility, and make a bigger profit by taking a percentage of the asset's value -- EPE would pay Affordable Solar a bunch of money to build the plant on its land.  A reasonable alternative would be to let independent power producers bid on supplying solar power through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA).  The Affordable Solar route is better for the utility; but the alternative would likely mean much lower rates for us.
What's the difference for you and me?  We can't know exactly; but EPE’s Affordable Solar 2 MW project would involve higher rates than the last Commission-approved solar project: In March 2018 the PRC approved Facebook’s  (non-utility owned) solar at $29.98 MWh.  Now, according to the "Notice of Proceeding and Hearing" filed by PRC Hearing Commissioner Ashley C. Schannauer this past Friday, the EPE’s Affordable Solar project is at $78.41/MWh.  Thus, it appears that rates estimated for the EPE’s Affordable Solar project will be 162% higher than the Facebook solar."  (How much "economies of scale" are a factor we don't know -- but we could if the bidding permitted PPA's.)  NEE says that five years ago, in EPE's First Solar project, an independent power producer sold generation to to EPE through a PPA at 57.90.MWh.  EPE didn't own the solar generation.  During the last five years, prices for solar have dropped considerably.  Yet the EPE’s Affordable Solar project (which it's now asking the PRC to approve) proposes rates 35% higher than EPE’s non utility owned First Solar Project five years ago. 


New Energy Economy calls this ridiculous and points out and lists three reasons for the "dramatic difference":  "1) the more the Investor Owned Utility charges the more profit it makes 2) [EPE and PNM pay their CEO's and senior management the highest] executive salaries in the State and these salaries are included in the price of generation costs, and 3) the IOUs are guaranteed a nearly 10% annual profit on all their assets, including generation assets."

NEE says "EPE's request for proposal (RFP) procurement process was rigged and anti-competitive against Independent Power Producers and their Power Purchase Agreements (PPA). Utilities should have to compete fairly against Independent Power Producers and their PPAs (contracts). If utilities can compete against these prices on an apples to apples comparison and win - more power to them. But they are not allowed to expand their monopoly and keep the Independent Power Producers out of the market place - that's anti-competitive and harms ratepayers because then ratepayers are not getting the lowest price available."  The nonprofit also points out that without competitive bidding from IPPs, we can't even know what the different options and costs would be.

 

"Independent Power Producers are satisfied with executive salaries in the $100,000 - $250,000 range not $4 or 5 million per year and they are satisfied with a 3-5% profit, not 10%. They are more often agile and trying to get the best price and reduce waste but for the utilities there is plenty of waste because there is an incentive to waste."]

The "Notice of Proceeding and Hearing" filed by EPE May 25, 2018, states in Paragraph 9 that "EPE estimates the levelized cost of the contract over the life of the project to be $78.31 per MWh."  (p. 4)





Sunday, May 20, 2018

PRC I

[This is the first of two columns on the Public Regulation Commission, with the second to be published next Sunday.]

In our changing world, how is the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) performing as a protector of the public? 

The world is moving toward renewable energy sources. Soon each house, business, and manufacturer will supply most or all of its energy from solar panels. A new California law requires that new buildings include solar panels – and even the home-builders apparently agree. Yeah, a new home will cost a bit more; but minimal or nonexistent utility bills will rapidly repay the investment. 

Lower solar costs and rapid improvements in storage are facilitating a decentralized system. The power grid will become more like a bank, with each of us depositing a bit of excess power much of the time and occasionally borrowing back some. We no longer need nearly so many huge gas-fired plants constantly sending large amounts of energy to our cities.

That decentralization is what utilities fear most. If they can build and own huge systems – gas, coal, nuclear, even solar – they make big profits. By tying profits to capital expenditures, our state's system arguably encourages waste. But if we each generate more of that energy, and utilities create less power (and transfer it from afar) and mostly direct energy traffic through the grid, their profits and our rates are more limited. Utilities have been standing on the brakes of this change, but it's coming. 

It could be here now. 

Meanwhile, El Paso Electric builds more huge plants because that's more profitable than energy-efficiency measures such as time-of-use rates, lowering peak demand, and encouraging distributed rooftop solar. 

The PRC has approved five new EPE gas plants in five years. These deals saddle us with those plants – and their high costs – for 40-50 years. One estimate says those new gas plants could cost us $5 billion over time. 

A friend compares it to investing zillions in mainframe computers just when PCs were taking over the world. Will we spend decades paying for dinosaurs? 

The PRC decides how we invest, after considering complex analyses and arguments. The playing field might seem tilted against us. Utility companies' sole legal duty and desire is to maximize profits. They have highly capable lawyers they pay well, passing on the costs to us. Although many states' PRCs have independent customer advocates, paid to argue for ratepayers' interests, we don't. The PRC hears one side presented by top professionals, and the other side presented by a few dedicated nonlawyer volunteers – assuming they can even negotiate the procedural maze those lawyers know by heart. (Recently some cities and counties have also intervened.) 

Even if commissioners are unbiased and want to be fair, they're hearing a case skewed toward one side. 

Despite that, hearing examiners, who read all the briefs and hear all the witnesses, have recently recommended decisions against utilities. PRC counsel has agreed. But the Commission has repeatedly voted 3-2 to overrule the hearing examiner in favor of utilities. (PRC Chair Sandy Jones has logical explanations for the votes, and notes he's overruled the hearing examiner in ways the utilities didn't like, including overruling one decision that intervenor Merrie Lee Soules's testimony couldn't be considered.) 

Those two cases are on appeal to New Mexico's Supreme Court. 

Since 2008 real median income in New Mexico is down 3.6%. Public Service Company of New Mexico's compensation is up 122%, and its stock price up 301%. 

It's hard not to be concerned.
                                     -30-

[This column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 20 May 2018, and also on the newspaper's website and KRWG's website.  A spoken version will air during the week on KRWG and on KTAL-LP, 101.5 FM.  Next week's column will discuss in more detail the candidates for the PRC, incumbent Sandy Jones and former State Senator Steve Fischmann.]

[I mention the 3-2 votes to overrule the hearing examiner.  I'll discuss those more fully in the next post, next Sunday.  Both look bad: in one, involving further investment in a coal plant in Four Corners area, PNM had reached a settlement with certain parties (by giving those categories especially low rates, to the detriment of most ratepayers) and the hearing examiner, after a hearing, recommended rejecting the settlement.  The PRC's lawyer agreed.  The Commission initially voted to follow the recommendation.  Two months later, three commissioners, including Jones, voted to reverse that decision and accept the settlement.  That meant PNM got the higher rates it wanted.  Jones said there was little choice, because the law set a deadline for the decision and there wasn't an adequate record.  An opponent pointed out that the law he cited had changed; and the PNM's own lawyer obviously thought the commission could safely reject the proposed settlement.  I'm no expert, and am still looking into this stuff.
In the other case, again rejecting the advice of a hearing examiner and the PRC's lawyer, the Commission (3-2) approved PNM's plan for meeting its renewable energy requirements.  Critics have made much of the fact that PNM was contracting with Affordable Solar for five solar fields on PNM would own.  The period for bids was only 30 days, and had other problems, so that one expert witness called it "rigged" and the Hearing Examiner agreed it was unfair.  One issue -- on which experts disagreed -- was whether the 30 days was or wasn't enough.  Some argued that for such a complex project, as a turnkey deal, 90 days would have been more appropriate; but others (and Jones, when we talked) said that because of the complexity, and the sophistication of potential bidders, the 60 days' difference wouldn't have mattered because bidders either had a system ready to propose or they didn't.  If they did, 30 days was enough.  If they didn't, the extra 60 days wouldn't help.  Jones says he's an expert on construction.  I'm not.  But, again, obviously the hearing examiner saw it differently.  
Jones's opponent have made much of the fact that Jones gets significant campaign contributions from Affordable Solar and related parties.  It doesn't look good.  Jones points out that Affordable Solar -- which got a $73 million contract -- wasn't directly regulated, as PNM is; that Affordable Solar is a great and New Mexican company; and that the appeal is delaying this and other renewable energy projects.]


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Thanks! -- a Column on Writing Columns


Today is the seventh anniversary of our move back to Las Cruces. Within months I started writing these columns. I doubt they've changed Las Cruces much, but they've changed me. 

Strangers express their appreciation of the columns and radio commentary in strong terms, thanking me. I feel a mixture of gratitude and the sense that I'm not doing enough to deserve such generous praise.

Nor do I deserve the insulting lecture someone gave me Thursday, “you people have your mind all made up” and “you don't want to listen to all the facts.” Actually, I do. As I explained, I do have strong views, but I try above all to be fair and accurate. 

This week saw an unusual number and variety of events and conversations generated by the columns. A county commissioner joked with regard to my column on DASO enforcing immigration laws that “you're dictating our agenda to us.” An acquaintance sent a two year-old spaceport-related column around to his mailing list. That column was an example of an occasional phenomena: sometimes someone tells me of a situation, or I read something, and quickly write a first draft; but when I talk to the subject of the column and hear the other side, I scrap the column or enrich it by articulating both sides. That one I muted, turning predictions of certain doom into questions with alternative answers.
Sometimes acquaintances and strangers express concern, asking whether I get a lot of abuse from people for my columns. (Not so much, actually.) 

Such concerns, like the criticism, spark inner questions about why I continue. Why do I? I suppose because public figures sometimes forget to tell the truth, and someone should remind them; and because I can fill that need reasonably well. 

In another life, I'd write more about coyotes, toads, and roadrunners, or appreciative (human) character studies. I'd write gentle, folksy columns full of practical wisdom – if I had any wisdom.
But stuff happens; and people tell me about it, sometimes confidentially, fearing retaliation. Like many of us (maybe more so, having grown up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers) I like underdogs. Sympathy won't convince me inaccurate speculation is fact, but will motivate me to investigate and, if appropriate, shine what light I can into dark corners.

I really started these columns in 1975, as the Las Cruces Bureau Chief for the El Paso Times. They appeared three times a week. I called them, “130 South Water” – our address. Sometimes, passing there or contemplating the unchanging Organ Mountains, or noticing names of friends like Bob Munson, Jake Hands, Albert Johnson, Gerald Thomas, and Pete Domenici on buildings, I wonder how it would be, and how I would be, if I'd stayed here writing columns and stories for four decades. 

I love this place. Writing hundreds of columns has helped me know it and love it better than I otherwise might. I'm grateful for that. And for so much gracious support.

I'm also grateful to people who talk to me when telling the truth ain't what their bosses want done, or could be dangerous; to the Sun-News and to KRWG; and to people I disagree with. I think they usually see that while I may reject some of what they say, I do not reject them as people. Neighbors who disagree are still neighbors. Our candid disagreements are the best road toward truth. 

Thanks!
                                              -30-
[This column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 13 May 2018, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG's website.  A spoken version will air during the week on KRWG and on KTAL-LP 101.5 FM.]

[I think a major thing I wanted to say was, "Thanks to you, reading this."  Writing these columns is a distraction, sometimes taking a lot of time, and you keep me writing them, for better or for worse.] 

[As to those earlier columns, I think I wrote them thrice weekly for the last two of my three years as Las Cruces Bureau Chief, February 1974 to January 1975.  I had advantages then: it was an earlier day; and when people saw this long-haired hippie show up at city council meetings and plunk his motorcycle helmet down on the press table, they quickly guessed they could trust the crazy guy to protect confidentiality under pressure.  So people talked to me.  It was an interesting time.]

[One column which changed after I got to talk with the subject was Doings at Dusty Spaceport (May 2015), which concerned Exos Aerospace.  I'd drafted one that piled on Exos as probably a fraud, but talking with John Quinn from Exos led me to mute the mocking, and end not with a conclusion but with a question: Will Exos will help save the Dusty Desert Spaceport? Tune in next year.

Greg Lennes reminded me of that a couple of months ago by attaching it to an email he sent around asking what had happened to a planned launch by Exos earlier this year.  So I just googled "Expos Aerospace launch" and got the company's website, where you can sign up for flights.  An April 2016 statement announced a five-year partnership with Spaceport America, describing Exos as "a leading developer of suborbital reusable space launch vehicles."

A more recent story recites, "Exos is planning a first launch April 7 from Spaceport America, flying to an altitude of at least 80 kilometers. Preparations for the launch will begin in the week leading up to it, Quinn said, as the rocket and support personnel travel from Texas to New Mexico.
"The rocket will be carrying payloads for customers, Quinn said, but did not disclose their names. One goal of the flight, he said, is to qualify to be a part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which contracts with several companies to fly suborbital research payloads. The program’s current suborbital flight providers include Blue Origin, UP Aerospace and Virgin Galactic."

April 7 didn't see a launch, as far as I know, and Doug Messier on the blog "Parabolic Arc" says Spaceport America and Exos announced a launch for May 5 -- which passed recently, and if there was news of a launch I didn't see it.  This morning an email said the launch was now set for this weekend, televised, but I've no idea whether anything happened.

So by trying to be open-minded maybe I get conned sometimes into going easier on authorities.  On balance, I'm not overly troubled by that.  I am who I am, with plenty of faults, of which maybe that's one.  I do plan to look further into Exos: instinct told me it was a con job three years ago; I muted my comments to that effect (which would have been fun but might have been unduly harsh); and "con job" probably is too strong (Exos reportedly did complete "a fully integrated hot fire testing" in December), but three years have passed, with someone investing in Exos, and . . .   Anyway, I'll shoot for updating that column in a few months.]