“Giving Tuesday” and all that….it’s my turn for an “ask”

Today is one of those days when we get many emails asking for contributions. As Bill McKibben says ‘Today is “Giving Tuesday’, which is a charitable rebuttal to the madness and materialism of ‘Black Friday'”.

Below is just a selection from today’s inbox:

“Help us fight for justice, fairness and equality”
“For Giving Tuesday, be a polar bear’s hero”
“We need you on #GivingTuesday”
“Be a Waterfront Champion on #GivingTuesday”
“Celebrate #GivingTuesday with ADA”
“Help us fight for justice, fairness and equality”
“It’s Giving Tuesday! Please help”
“This Giving Tuesday, give critters a place to roam”
“It’s #GivingTuesday! Join the Global Movement”

Most of the orgs asking for contributions do good work and deserve contributions. But having been an environmental campaigner/consultant for a long time, I’ve formed some strong views, including these:

The number of good causes and deserving orgs is effectively infinite.

The more money an org has the less integrity it is likely to have. No mystery to this: The easiest way to get money is to sell out to some special interest needing to be “greenwashed.” (I restrain myself from offering examples.)

The orgs with the most income are ones able to afford fancy, expensive, focus-group-tested, corporate-style marketing/fundraising campaigns. No mystery here either; we all know money breeds money.

There is little accountability to the mission of NGOs. Think about it:  If a the management of a for-profit corporation dissipates the assets or tanks the business, investors of various sorts are waiting in the wings to pounce, denounce, and sue. Who is watching the big funded organizations, such as National Resources Defense Council (annual revenues about $120 million, about 350 employees), Environmental Defense Fund (about the same size as NRDC), Sierra Club (about $100 million per year) The Nature Conservancy (annual revenues +/- $1 billion), Audubon (annual revenues about $90 million), or Greenpeace USA (revenues around $45 million) in the same way? Nobody, for the most part.

These do a lot of good–and some bad–work. Most donors to them don’t know anything about them, except what they want you to know. They are big businesses whose primary relationships are with big funders. Your little contribution won’t have any more influence than buying a packet of sandpaper influences the corporate policies of 3M.

On the other hand, grassroots activists are usually very dedicated to their cause and are often deeply uncomfortable asking for money–I know I am. They don’t view their work as running a business with profit as the priority, and instead focus on making a difference. They end up making substantial sacrifices.

To make a real difference, give to local activists, local groups, and orgs you have real information about and real access to.

Now, I am going to tell you about Carol Overland, starting with the disclosure that she is my life partner and I’m not disinterested.

Over 12 years, Overland got herself a B.A. while driving a truck over the road. She put herself through law school on a shoe string, and then got back into a truck to earn the money to hang out a law-office shingle.

She practices utility regulatory law, charging peanuts, on behalf of regular people and small grassroots organizations. Utility regulatory matters are so complex that few can handle them effectively. It requires legal smarts, technical smarts, and engineering smarts. Utilities bring a whole team to the table. There are very few lawyers, not working for utilities themselves, who have the depth of knowledge needed to have an impact. She does. She even intervenes in matters where the client can’t pay those few peanuts, such as the RRANT group intervening in the Great Northern Transmission Line docket.

The governmental entities involved include the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the MPCA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and others. Most of these, in my experience, are strongly biased in favor of giving the utilities what they want (This is me talking, not Carol.). Yet Overland has often helped her clients prevail over a very long haul, against the odds.

Electric “deregulation”

Fifteen or so years ago there was a strong push to “deregulate,” or “restructure,” Minnesota utilities. This, in reality, was an attempt to shift from weakly-regulated monopoly to near-totally-unregulated monopoly. States that deregulated saw much faster increases in electric rates and no real competition at the residential level. It was a gigantic scam. I fought this and lost in Delaware, watching bought-off enviro and consumer groups operate with their hands out and their mouths shut. In Minnesota, when “environmental” orgs were lining up behind “restructuring,” few played a larger role in stopping it than “the invisible hand of Overland.” Doubtless ratepayers have saved billions….

Electric transmission lines

Utilities say they want to build transmission lines “for wind.” Midwest “environmental” orgs have jumped on this bandwagon and get fat-cat funding for supporting new lines. Yes, it sounds reasonable that the wind and solar resources aren’t where most of the people are, so we need more transmission. I’d bought into that myself until Carol educated me: every project she showed me involved a coal plant at one end and a big load (like Chicago) at the other. Nothing much to do with wind at all.

The geographical reality is that Minnesota is located between energy resources to the North and West, and big concentrations of customers to the East. (And also between sources of oil and gas, and the refineries for same, but pipelines and oil trains are another story.)

Minnesota utilities have strong desires to engage in “market” transactions in wholesale electricity, buying and selling it like pork bellies; moving it around. This has nothing to do with “keeping the lights on” in Minnesota, or replacing coal power with wind power, because coal in the Dakotas isn’t being shut down–and the thinly-populated Dakotas don’t have much “local load” so they need to export electricity. All this unneeded transmission-building damages the property values and quality of life of tens of thousands of Minnesota families, farms, and businesses.

Which brings to mind…

Coal gasification (“clean coal” and IGCC)

Again, I’m biased here, but without the information and record developed by Overland and her clients and cohorts in fighting the Excelsior Energy Mesaba Project, we would have a hyper-expensive new coal burner in Taconite, Minnesota. This scam received tens of millions of dollars from the Minnesota Legislature and the US Department of Energy. Minnesotans had to reach deep into their own pockets to fight a scam funded by their own governments and promoted by “environmental” organizations. This happens all too often.

In Delaware, another “clean coal” scam was promoted by NSP offshoot NRG, and similarly had the support of Delaware officials and legislators. Carol’s background in fighting the Minnesota “clean coal” scam was a huge help in defeating this “clean coal” scam.

Beyond that, Carol promoted a “wind/gas” alternative to the Delaware Public Service Commission and this concept was eventually adopted by the PSC. Carol wasn’t paid a penny for all these contributions in Delaware, unless you count the pleasure of my company. And were it not for coal gasification, we wouldn’t have met.

I could go on and on …. I can’t tell you how proud I am of Carol for taking on these fights. Take a look at her blogs (below) to see the breadth and depth of her interests. Her work in the public interest benefits us all. But support is greatly needed. Carol, once in a while, gently requests public contributions to help sustain this work.

Let me be more direct: If you want to make a truly meaningful contribution on “Giving Tuesday,” (but not limited to Tuesday!) take a look at Carol Overlands blogs: www.legalectric.org and www.noapx2020.info, and www.not-so-great-northern-transmission-line.org, look in the upper right, click on PayPal, send her a non-deductible contribution. Consider a regular, sustaining one. You may also use snail mail and send to: Legalectric, 1110 West Avenue, Red Wing, MN 55066. If you are wanting to make a tax deductible donation, please hit “reply” and ask me for fiscal agent information.

Thank you — your help is what keeps us going.

Alan Muller

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