Thursday, April 07, 2005

A Family Affair

A while back, I discussed the links of wind-energy firms to Enron and other BushCo loyalists. My post ended with this bit of idle speculation about wind-farm siting:

There's also an unsettling potential for shady land-lease deals; currently, landowners are paid $2,000 - $3,000 per turbine by the lessee. On some sites in Texas, this brings in almost $400,000 per year for lessors; that's a lot of money in anyone's English, and the temptation to relax siting restrictions will be accordingly great (particularly if the landowner just happens to be someone with political connections).
Right on cue, here comes California State Rep. Richard Pombo:
Pombo (R-Tracy), heads the House committee that oversees the Interior Department. His parents own a 300-acre ranch in the Altamont Pass and have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties from wind-power turbines on their land over the last 17 years — much more than the family gets from cattle on that land.
Now, certain environmental guidelines apply to the siting and operation of wind farms, primarily in order to protect endangered and migrating birds, many of whom tend to be killed by the turbine blades. The Pombo's Altamont Pass farm has been a particularly bad site for bird deaths; hundreds of birds are killed there yearly, including the federally protected golden eagle. These deaths brought the Altamont site a bit of scrutiny from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which apparently outraged Pombo's strong sense of filial devotion:
Last October, Pombo's aides wrote to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton asking her to suspend the guidelines. A few days later on Oct. 8, staff members of the House Resources Committee, which Pombo heads, confronted Fish and Wildlife Service officials about the guidelines and regulatory actions taken by the agency's Sacramento field office at Altamont. In both cases, they did not mention the Pombo family holdings.

Pombo told The Times he was unaware of the letter to Norton when it went out under his signature.
All of this confirms my view that while switching to renewable energy sources, we're frequently going to be dealing with the same corruption, callousness, and irrationality that made fossil fuels such a disaster. And unlike nuclear power, wind power's wholesome public image will make it very easy for Bush-allied energy companies to stifle dissent while grabbing and exploiting public lands, and siting unnecessary, low-productivity farms on privately owned lands for the benefit of the politically connected.

Unless wind-farm deals are carefully scrutinized and regulated, I'm afraid we're going to end up with a new round of public subsidies for private profiteering.

UPDATE: If you're wondering where you heard the name "Pombo" before, Effect Measure has more on this enigmatic figure's remarkable intellectual and scientific attainments.


Jesse said...

Another great post, Phila.

How can this sort of thing be stopped? I've posted about how people keep looking to Big Oil for solutions and I think that's what's happening.. People are just sitting by while the Enron's and BushCo's take over these technologies and then exploit them for profits...

It's sickening.

Phila said...

Thanks, Jesse!

I'm not sure how this stuff can be stopped. It's somewhat analogous to the situation with organic foods, in which small, local companies were bought out by giant firms who then cut corners and stretched the definitions of "organic" past the breaking point. But that, at least, is a market-based issue, and concerned consumers can react accordingly. In the case of wind farms, we don't have that sort of voting power, and a certain amount of corruption is probably inevitable.

I think the best we can hope for is to protect public lands from being converted into low-yield wind farms. Other than that, we can look at other designs for turbines etc. I've seen a few interesting one, but I don't have 'em at my fingertips right now...try Google.

Cervantes said...

The so-called "Soft Energy Path" isn't just about what technologies we select -- it's about their ownership and social organization. The model of massive, centralized utility corporations that distribute centrally produced power across the continent over high voltage lines is unaffected by whether the power source is nuclear, fossil fuel, biomass, hydro, wind or solar. But some of those technologies can be implemented in completely different, less centralized ways. That's one important distinction worth keeping in the foreground as we think about these issues.

Rmj said...

I'm slowly waking up to the fact that oil has made "commodification" the reigning model of industry and government in our age.

At one point in American history, it was land. When the government began giving that away to get people to settle it (largely to keep other countries from setting up show), it slowly switched to gold and minerals, as those were discovered (ironically, on the opposite coast from where they were first sought). But water and food and land were still dependent on access by those who used them directly.

And then oil changed everything. Now access to food, water, even land, depend on petroleum. Control energy, you control the world, as Enron understood; as Bush & Cheney understand now.

The coming commodity is water. Not because people love to live where there is no water to sustain life, but because industry loves to use water; or to use up the resources that store water (forests; humus; aquifers; all affected by using the planet for profit, not prosperity (by which I mean sustainability). Commodify water, you get hold of the same power as those who control the oil. Except oil will run out; and if water does, then it's rolled up for all of us.

Societies that cannot provide food and water, don't last long. Those that can, survive for millenia. Guess which one we are. And we're introducing that model to the rest of the world. And the more we support that via our government the more we have, as you say: "public subsidies for private profiteering."

I'll retire to Bedlam.....

Revere said...

For amusement (?) you might also look at Richard Pombo, future science great at Effect Measure (shameless self-promotion department).