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Monday, February 07, 2011

NM Energy Sec Nominee Harrison Schmitt Holds Forth at SFC Meeting

JerryOrtizYPino CarrollLeavell
SFC, Sen. Ortiz y Pino, Sen. Carroll Leavell

Last Thursday, Harrison Schmitt, Gov. Susana Martinez's nominee to head the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), discussed his department's funding needs at a meeting of a Senate Finance Committee (SFC) hearing in Santa Fe. The nomination of Schmitt has already generated a slew of criticism because he has said he believes environmentalists are "communists" and he has long insisted there is no human component to climate change caused by increasingly massive greenhouse gas emissions.

SFCLegis HarrisonSchmittSFC
SFC, Harrison Schmitt

Despite the near complete consensus of the world's most prominent climate scientists that greenhouse gases have a huge and incredibly damaging role in causing and speeding global warming, Schmitt -- a geologist -- claims that consensus is wrong and is, in fact, part of some kind of by scientists and others to institute some nefarious form of world domination over business interests. Or something.

Harrison Schmitt: Solar flares and sunspots cause drought

Solar Flares
During Thursday's SFC meeting, Schmitt was asked about his thoughts on climate change and New Mexico's worsening drought by Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort. Schmitt claimed the drought was being caused by solar flares and sunspots, discounting any impact greehouse gases and global warming might be having. I didn't know he was an expert on solar flares and climate, being a geologist and all. Certainly solar activity is seen as something that can affect climate on earth, but to claim they're the primary or only thing causing increasing drought conditions in our state and elsewhere is rather narrow minded, to say the least.

Harrison Schmitt on life, career

Committee members also got to hear a rather long-winded recap by Schmitt of his life and career. For the most part, he didn't get any close questioning about any aspect of his testimony. Perhaps some lawmakers are suffering from celebrity-itus given that Schmitt is a former NASA astronaut who walked on the moon, as well as a past one-term U.S. Senate from New Mexico.

It's ironic that Gov. Martinez's right-wing nominee to head the Energy Department appeared to be in some conflict with her on cutting the budget -- at least the budget he will have to work with at Energy. Schmitt noted that the department is already suffering the effects of a 2009 hiring freeze, with 18% of its staff positions in the Oil Conservation Division unfilled. EMNRD also is missing an environmental specialist, field inspectors, a geologist and analysts, which Schmitt said would make it hard to handle a backlog of 3800 pending oil and natural gas permits. 

Schmitt admitted such understaffing might stop the department from fulfilling its responsibilities, as well as result in some losses of federal funding. In the end, though, Schmitt seemed content with Gov. Martinez's budget proposal, saying he had the power to move funds around within the department to ensure that it could operate effectively.

Details, Details
Gov. Martinez's general fund budget request for the department is even lower than that proposed by the Legislative Finance Committee. Legislators expressed concerns about additional cuts for the state's Healthy Forests (fire suppression) project, as well as state parks. When Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino asked Schmitt if he had thought about how he would reallocate the funds -- where he would cut further to permit adequate funding for fire suppression and state parks -- Schmitt had no definitive answers. He did mention possible fee increases for things like state parks and boat registrations, although it wasn't clear whether the Secretary has the power to increase such fees on his own.

Although Sen. Ortiz y Pino pushed him to provide more detail about that and how anticipated levels of federal funding and other revenues would impact the proposed budget, Schmitt didn't provide many answers. He said more details would be forthcoming as the process moves along. The Senator also noted that the numbers provided by Schmitt were incomplete -- including what revenue might be expected from other sources -- and didn't seem to add up saying, "You may be an astronaut, but I don't know if magic is one of the ...." What we have here is a magical budget?

Schmitt rambles about old technology

Renewable Energy
When asked to discuss renewable energy by Sen. Beffort, Schmitt rambled off into a discussion of technology problems during his astronaut days and how battery storage was a problem. Sen. Befford noted that back in the era he was discussing, computers were huge, while today they are very small. You might say! Schmitt seemed more than a little mired in the past and basically unaware of the many advances in battery and other technologies being achieved since he was in NASA.

Uranium Mining
Sen. Ortz y Pino noted that New Mexico has a number of legacy uranium mines that still need reclamation before we can even begin to think about new uranium mines, and asked Schmitt where the money would come from to pay for cleaning up the old sites. Once again, Schmitt didn't seem to have a definitive answer. Ortiz y Pino noted we have some good programs regarding reclamation, but unfortunately they're not funded.

Next Up, Senate Rules
All in all, the questions and answers at the committee hearing were all over the ballpark in some respects, and not many clear or detailed answers were provided by Schmitt. Before he can officially become EMNRD Secretary, Schmitt will have to be approved by the Senate Rules Committee. Let's hope they give him a thorough vetting on both his current ability to grasp the details required to run the powerful and critical energy department, and how his radical views on global warming and environmentalists might prevent him from doing the job -- and New Mexico -- justice.

Photos and video by M.E. Broderick.

February 7, 2011 at 04:26 PM in Climate, Economy, Populism, Energy, Environment, NM Legislature 2011, Uranium | Permalink


At 77 maybe the guy is too old to be given a job like this. Doesn't sound like he is up on the budget of the department or modern technology. Hate to say it but sometimes it's a fact.

What does a geologist know about budgeting and managing anyway?

Posted by: Ray | Feb 7, 2011 5:42:22 PM

We can respect a man for his past service to his country and still not see him fit for a new assignment. We need someone who can help lead New Mexico into the future and he just isn't that man. I hope our legislators have the backbone to stand up to the governor on this one.

Posted by: Joan Fenicle | Feb 7, 2011 11:36:37 PM

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