Clean energy activist reflects on corporate influence in New Mexico legislation

  • Ben Luce with solar panels at his home in Santa Fe

    KATHARINE KIMBALL
  • A toy solar car from his days at the New Mexico Solar Energy Association

    KATHARINE KIMBALL
 

NAME Ben Luce 

AGE 44 

Resume Ten years at Los Alamos National Laboratory working on nonlinear dynamics; co-founder and former director of the New Mexico Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy; founder, Break The Grip. 

Minimum number of Task Force seats Governor Richardson appointed him to Five (all relating to energy.) 

Minimum number of harmonicas carried through airport security in July Four 

In June, after 10 years of helping craft laws related to energy efficiency and renewable energy in New Mexico, Ben Luce held a press conference in Santa Fe. The gist of Luce's message was this: Corporate influence over the Legislature and the governor's office has thwarted true progress on clean energy. 

Now, Luce and his group, Break The Grip, are calling for the state to repeal four laws passed in the 2007 legislative session that they say were compromised by influence from PNM, the state's largest electric utility. A spokesman from the governor's office dismissed Luce's assertions as a "rant." Nevertheless, the state's attorney general is investigating the governor's office's use of a PNM-paid lobbyist as a staffer during the 2007 legislative session

No offense, Ben, but you don't exactly seem like a wild and crazy guy.

I wasn't a radical. I was considered the reasonable guy who could bring about incremental progress, and I took a lot of heat from the far left from being too close, from being willing to compromise too much. 

What prompted you to finally lose it?

It was one thing to have the utilities at the table - I could justify that in my mind - as long as there was some true leadership being shown by the governor, and as long as real progress was being made. It was another thing to have only the utility at the table and to have extremely flawed policies full of loopholes and corporate giveaways being pushed by the administration. They just weren't ethical, and they just weren't serious about clean energy. 

How do you respond to the governor's office calling your allegations a "rant"?

There has been silence on my general criticisms. I interpret it as confirmation that I'm on target. 

You raised concerns about Gov. Richardson, who is also a presidential candidate, the state Legislature, an electric utility, the nuclear industry and one of the largest environmental groups (the Natural Resources Defense Council). Do you ever feel nervous about that?

I am looking over my shoulder. I've always followed my heart completely in what I do. I don't know any other way to live. 

What do you have to say to the people who point out that you helped pass the legislation you now say should be repealed?

I was under an obligation at the time - I was still with the coalition - to publicly stick with the agreement that had been made in the heat of the session. Furthermore, we didn't know that PNM was about to appoint as their new head of generation a major nuclear power player. 

And frankly, I have said publicly that I think it was a mistake on my part to play as much of an insider game as I did. It's not something I intend to do ever again. I believe public policy should be developed in the bright light of day, not behind closed doors because you're depending on political will, and not grassroots pressure. And it's also true that a bunch of those bills were really good bills ... the solar rights bill, the gross receipts tax exemption for solar this session, and the solar-ready roofs bill. 

What are some of the things you've heard about yourself since you started Break The Grip?

One of the governor's advisors characterized me as being a "crazy person." One woman explained to me that she felt she couldn't trust me anymore - frankly, I don't blame her for that - and Jim Baca (former head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management under President Clinton and former Albuquerque mayor) characterized my actions as a "miscalculation." 

Three things you think New Mexicans should know?

The nuclear and coal industries are intent on turning New Mexico into a vast wasteland for their profit. You are not in control of your own state government. We actually have the technology and the means to completely phase out fossil fuels and nuclear power, we just need to get serious about it. 

The author is a freelance writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.