By Claus Whiteacre
The first order of business last Thursday afternoon in the Senate Finance Committee was discussion of the proposed budget for the state Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources. Analysts did the basic presentation, but at the end, secretary-designate Harrison Schmitt got to chime in.
Given the fawning welcoming of Schmitt by Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith (D-Deming), it appeared that Schmitt would have an easy go of it before the influential Senate committee.
Schmitt, 75, started off with a walk down memory lane, starting from when he was a child growing up in Silver City and ranging on to his scholastic adventures, his advances at NASA as an astronaut and finally, to his single term as U.S. Senator.
For a while there, I thought I had walked into a book promotion tour, but Schmitt concluded by saying his recap was merely to present his qualifications to the committee.
Then Schmitt started talking about the various allocations to the functional groups of the agency, which oversees oil and natural gas production, manages state parks and administers forestry, mining reclamation and renewable energy programs.
Schmitt talked about how the department had seen vacancy rates of up to 18 percent due to the hiring freeze of 2009, and had endured budget cuts in the last couple of years. He talked about how limited personnel would jeopardize either the ability of those groups to fulfill their mission, to receive federal funding or both.
It was, all in all, typical advocacy for one’s department. But Schmitt also mentioned that he had been assured that he would have flexibility in taking the allocated funding and reallocating it between groups.
With innovative management, Schmitt said, the Energy and Minerals department could probably function within the executive budget recommendation.
Then the question and answer part started – and that’s when it got weird.
Climate Change and Drought
When he was asked about climate change and the drought in New Mexico, Schmitt said that, based on scientific data, drought was related to sunspots and sun flares. New Mexico, he said, is actually four years behind in the predicted cycle.
Schmitt’s beliefs regarding climate change are well-known. The former astronaut has acknowledged that global warming is real but – in sharp contrast to a majority of the world’s scientists – denies that man’s actions have had any role in the process.
(Here’s some background on that, and an accounting of how petroleum companies have historically funded much of Schmitt’s non-peer-reviewed “scholarship” on global warming.)
Also, in an interview with radio host Alex Jones, known for his wild conspiracy theories, Schmitt called environmentalist “Communists.” On his personal blog, Schmitt has also expressed extreme views about Social Security, health care, “state-committed media” and other topics, raising questions among some about whether Schmitt is fit to run such a powerful state department.
“I Don’t Know How This Sausage Is Made”
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) wondered whether there were some other monies for the department, since Schmitt was happy with the executive recommendation – which was actually lower than what the Legislative Finance Committee had proposed. Schmitt repeated that he was offered assurances of having the flexibility to re-allocate funds between functional groups.
“I don’t know how this sausage is made,” said Schmitt, in reference to the proposed allocations.
When Pressed by Ortiz y Pino whether he had made some determinations on how to reallocate funds and to which groups, Schmitt responded that he had not and said the handout given to the committee had been prepared so that he could understand it.
At that point, Ortiz y Pino retorted, “You may be an astronaut, but this may require magic.”
More Permits, Fewer Regulations, Please
Sen. Carroll Leavell (R-Jal) asked how the department could issue mining permits faster. Schmitt said that they could issue exploratory permits quickly, but the water discharge permits were the holdup.
Sen. Leavell exhorted Schmitt to review all rules and regulations – not necessarily to eliminate them, but just to review them, since they hindered development. Schmitt agreed and mentioned the pit rule.
Sen. Howie Morales (D- Silver City) mused aloud that if the pit rule is chasing business out of New Mexico, than where is it going? The states surrounding us are worse of than we are, Morales noted.
Schmitt went on to say that there is renewed interest in nuclear energy. There are ways to render nuclear waste safe, he said, but did not offer details.
A Bit Out of Touch
It was, all in all, an interesting session. While it appears clear that Sen. Smith will vote for Schmitt during his confirmation hearing, we can only hope that the rest of the Senate asks some serious questions.
Back in 1982, then-Sen. Schmitt lost his re-election bid to now senior New Mexico senator Jeff Bingaman because he was deemed by voters to be too out of touch with his constituency.
At this point, Schmitt appears to be out of touch with reality.