Monday, May 17, 2010

Public Service—The Highest Secular Calling

Last week was Public Service Week, but what prompts me to write this column is the rancor and vile comments I hear and read on a regular basis toward public servants, especially federal employees. What troubles me is that an awful lot of Americans feel entitled to speak of, about, and even to public employees as though they were some kind of sub-human life form. All decorum and common courtesy seems to evaporate when someone has a problem with the government and people seem to think it is okay to vent there frustration to the person on the phone or behind the counter.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked for the federal government as a political appointee for 10.5 years of my professional life. I served as State Director for then-Congressman Dick Cheney of Wyoming for four years and I was a Deputy Assistant Secretary in two different offices at the U.S. Department of the Interior for six and one-half years. I am proud to have had the opportunity serve this country, and I must say with a few exceptions, I am proud of the public servants I have worked with over the years.

The quintessential justification for this rude behavior toward government employees used most often is, “I pay your salary!” While I could probably successfully argue that very few Americans pay enough taxes to cover anybody’s salary, the whole premise fails on the notion that paying a salary entitles “the boss” to be rude, abusive, and in some cases threatening. When talking about public employees in the negative, the pejorative term of choice is “Bureaucrat.” It is as though people who work for the government sit around and think of ways to make your life miserable. Moreover, if you think bureaucracy is unique to the government sector, I have a news flash for you; bureaucracy is alive and well in every large private corporation.

May I be so bold as to remind everyone that government workers at all levels may be your family members, your neighbors, the coach of your kid’s baseball team, community volunteers, and just might be a friend of yours. If they are in law enforcement, they may be called to lay down their life for you. If the government employee happens to serve in the armed services or the National Guard, then they are prepared to risk their lives to ensure that you have the freedoms we all take for granted. But, then again, I have observed that people who think it is okay to be rude to public employees rarely have the nerve to mouth off to a soldier, airman, sailor, or a marine.

I am not naïve enough to think that all public servants do a good job or that there are not a few people out there who let a little authority and power go to their heads. They are all people just like you and me, and quite frankly, the public sector does not have the monopoly on rude and incompetent employees. Somehow, we all just seem to be able to shrug our shoulders and maybe never patronize the business where the private sector employee failed to do their job, but we feel free to vent of the public employees.

One of my jobs at the Department of the Interior was Human Capital, and in that role, I had responsibilities that extended to 70,000 plus employees. While nobody can say with a straight face that they actually supervise that many employees, I had more than 100 employees working directly under me and I have had direct interaction with thousands of federal employees in my career.

In my federal career, I was always a political appointee, and if you have followed this column at all, you know that I am a conservative Republican. I make no apologies for my views, but I bring this up to make the point that if there is ever an opportunity for someone to have conflict with federal employees it is when a political appointee is trying to advance the policies of the administration that appointed them. I have encountered federal employees who have a clear bias toward both liberal and conservative philosophies. But, more importantly, my experiences have confirmed for me that the vast majority of federal employees are smart, dedicated, work hard, do what they are told to do even when they disagree, have a high degree of integrity, and are highly motivated to do the best they can for America. I am proud to have worked along side them and I know that some of what we accomplished together made government better, more accountable, performance based, and efficient.

Oh, I could tell you some horror stories too: federal employees using their government credit cards to make their mortgage payments, accessing and storing pornographic material on government computers, driving under the influence in government vehicles, and more. There was even the employee who ate her lunch everyday and then proceeded to take a nap at her desk despite her boss telling her that she was not exactly conveying the best public image of a federal employee. But, if we are honest, we know that the private sector has these same issues and the bad apples in both sectors make up a very small percentage of the work force.

I also can tell you from first hand experience that it is a myth that federal employees cannot be fired. You must have cause to remove a federal employee from service and the protections are slanted in the employee’s favor to protect career civil servants from the arbitrary and capricious actions of political appointees. All too often bad employees are left alone or even promoted to move them on, but that is a problem with supervisors taking the easy route and not documenting poor performance. Let’s face it, firing someone is an unpleasant task and most bosses will do anything to avoid it.

Having said all that, I was the deciding official in a removal action of the Chief of the U.S. Park Police. It was a very high profile and contentious action. She chose to involve the media, she was defended by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, she appealed my decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board, and when that failed, she went to federal court. We had documentation of her violations of policy, insubordination, failure to correct her actions, and we adhered to the appropriate processes. To make a very long story short, her removal has been sustained to this day.

I believe public service is the highest secular calling. We need the best people in our government if we want government to improve. The vast majority of public employees are just doing their job. They don’t write the rules; they just administer them. Save your angst for the policies put into place by Congress and the Executive Branch, but remember it is not personal, just business. And, the next time you feel like you have the right to yell at a public servant, or denigrate their heritage, or otherwise bash government employees, just remember this, “Keep your words warm and sweet, you may have to eat them.”

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Energy Sprawl

The Nature Conservancy calls the renewable energy boom “Energy Sprawl” and for good reason. I believe that in the wake of our national rush to develop renewable energy in the 21st Century, we may one day look back to realize that the loss of wildlife habitat due to renewable energy projects may be an ecological disaster on scale with the near extinction of the American Bison in the 19th Century.

First, allow me to digress and examine the fundamental reason for this new renewable energy boom—global warming or climate change. For the sake of flimsy science, virtually no effect on the future average temperature of the globe, and at great cost to our economy, we are being asked to replace reliable and cheap electricity from fossil fuels with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar even though they are neither reliable nor capable of generating the nation’s minimum demand for electricity.

Fossil fuels provide well over half of the nation’s electricity and coal-fired power plants currently generate about 45%. There are sufficient and proven coal reserves in the United States to continue that level of consumption for several centuries. The United States has about 25% of the world’s coal reserves and the energy equivalent of the U.S. reserves exceeds that of the world’s supply of recoverable oil. We have the technology now to burn coal virtually emission free, save the carbon dioxide that we have suddenly decided is a “pollutant” despite the fact that CO2 is as essential to life as oxygen and water. And, unlike renewable energy sources such as wind and solar that only generate electricity when the wind blows or the sun shines, coal-fired plants can operate 24/7.

But, here is the real kicker, the rest of the story as Paul Harvey says. Wind and solar projects impact huge amounts of acreage thus altering or destroying habitat for a wide variety of wildlife from mammals to insects, from reptiles to birds.

For instance, a proposed 250-megawatt (MW) dry-cooling, parabolic trough, solar thermal, electric power plant facility on Bureau of Land Management land approximately 5 miles west of the city of Ridgecrest, CA, will disturb 1,944 acres. There are nearly a dozen proposed solar generation projects being considered for the Mojave Desert at this time and their acreage impacts range from 2,000 to nearly 10,000 acres each with a generating potential of 300 to 1,000 MW for each plant. By comparison a single coal-fired power plant generating from 300 to 1,000 MW rarely impacts more than 100 acres.

Much is said about the negative impacts of mining coal, not the least of which is the impact on humanity when tragic mining accidents kill dozens of miners as recently happened in West Virginia. However, most of the United States Reserves of coal are in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. The coal seams are huge, close to the surface, and operations there have virtually no adverse impact on resources or the habitat. Reclamation is ongoing and habitat is restored to as good or better condition than before the mining activity.

There was a hue and cry from the environmental community when the Jonah Natural Gas Field was being developed in the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming a few years back. The field is about 30 by 50 miles, but the impacted acreage is only about 21,000 acres. The really staggering fact about this field is that it contains about 10.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. There is virtually no place on earth where you can find so much energy in such a confined space and produce it with so little adverse impacts on the resources. And when the field has played out, it will all be reclaimed to the point where it will be difficult to tell that anything happened on the site. Presumably, solar plants and wind farms and their impact on the land go on forever.

Wind farms also occupy large tracts of land in the tens of thousands of acres. While the footprint of the towers themselves are small, there are extensive road systems and transmission line requirements that all lead to wildlife habitat loss. By far and away, the biggest impact wind farms have on wildlife though is that they serve as virtual meat grinders for migratory birds, eagles, and bats. While wind turbine blades appear to move slowly, because of the blade sizes ranging from 130’ to 300’, the resulting speed of the tip of the blade can be as high as 180 mph. And of greater consequence, the towers are placed such that the blades are above the tree top level which is where the highest concentration of bird traffic exists as well.

Of equal concern to many people is the aesthetic impact of wind farms where once panoramic vistas are now being cluttered with an array of towers and spinning propellers. This of course is highly subjective as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I remember the first two proto-type commercial wind turbines that once stood near Medicine Bow, WY. Although romanticized in Owen Wister’s classic, The Virginian, there is not much to see at Medicine Bow and the wind can really blow there. It was always fun to see who could spot the huge towers first and I was disappointed when they were torn down about 10-15 years ago and sold for scrap metal. Then there is the Cape Winds Project that has been on the drawing boards for nearly a decade. Proposed to be built in the Nantucket Sound near Cape Cod, MA, this clean, renewable source of energy has been vigorously opposed by the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation because they do not want to see the wind mills on the horizon. Yes, the same people who decry the use of fossil fuels, oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope of Alaska, and who want to enact a carbon tax to raise your utility bill. Oh, they want more renewable sources of energy alright, just not in their back yard.

Renewable energy has a place in our energy future. I am for it, but not at the expense of every other form of energy and especially not at the risk of losing fossil fuel energy. More to the point, I believe we need to find ways to issue permits for many forms of energy development, including nuclear. But, unfortunately, we have as a nation moved from the Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) syndrome to the BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). The permitting processes should not be a means of just saying “No” to everything, but in the interest of conservation and fairness, we should apply the same standards for impacts on wildlife and habitat to all forms of energy development.