The dirty secret behind the billionaire space race

Criticism of Richard Branson’s recent space sojourn crossed ideological and political boundaries. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders used it as an opportunity to renew his call “to tax billionaires,” while CNN’s Brian Stelter wondered if it was “ethical to be launching rockets and flying off to space and spending all this money and burning all this fuel in an age of climate crisis?”

But take a look deeper and you will find one key ingredient to the public reaction missing: Hypocrisy.

For what has seemed like a new and futuristic event to most of the world is in fact a (multi-delayed) nearly 20-year boondoggle in my home state of New Mexico. While Mr. Branson and his political allies here would be the last to admit it, his reach for the stars would be impossible without the Land of Enchantment’s fossil fuels.

It goes beyond the literal rocket motor fuel that powered Mr. Branson’s ship. The taxpayer dollars that funded the billionaire’s space adventure also came from fossil fuels.

Before Mr. Branson’s liftoff, New Mexico taxpayers had to first shell out $220 million for the spaceport needed to get off the ground. Additionally, the Spaceport approached lawmakers for more roads and other infrastructure for the massive facility needed for Branson’s photo-op. Therein lies the little secret: 30% of New Mexico’s state budget is made up of revenue from the oil and natural gas industry.

In other words, Mr. Branson’s space flight burned a lot of money from my state’s energy workers in every sense of the word.

Most New Mexicans have no problem with the fact energy revenues power our schools, public safety, and roads. However, Mr. Branson doesn’t like fossil fuels. In the same year New Mexico’s energy workers began funding the Spaceport he required, Mr. Branson was pledging to “invest in fuels to actually replace fossil fuels.”

New Mexico does not have an NFL team, but imagine if a billionaire demanded taxpayers foot the bill for a new stadium and then said the world needs to transition away from sports. Mr. Branson says he doesn’t like burning fossil fuels, but he has no problem burning the money they generate. And he’s not alone among New Mexican hypocrites.

Joining Mr. Branson in celebrating his flight is New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham who has also said we should “transition out of fossil fuels.” Keep in mind, this is the same governor who used taxpayer dollars for delivery of gourmet food and alcohol while she kept her citizens on lockdown. The governor’s fancy grocery and booze budget came from the same place as Branson’s Spaceport account: Fossil fuels.

Not to worry, we have a solution to help Mr. Branson and Gov. Lujan Grisham “transition away” from their abhorrent hypocrisy. Credit where credit is due, this solution comes from Mr. Branson himself. Both of them need to pay a “Clean Energy Dividend” to the people of New Mexico.

For Mr. Branson, he can start by giving the state $66 million (30 percent of the $220 million taxpayers shelled out) back to the people of New Mexico. He can also pay back the same percentage of every dollar that has gone into his spaceport. For Gov. Luan Grisham, she needs to go to her green allies and ask them to pony up the billions delivered to the state budget by New Mexico’s energy workers.

Now that’s a way to pay their “fair share” in a way that would make even socialist Bernie Sanders proud.

• Larry Behrens is the author of the report, “Lights Out: How Green Mandates Are Undermining the Affordability and Reliability of Electricity.” He currently works as the Western States Director for Power The Future, an organization fighting for America’s Energy Workers. He previously served as Communications Director for New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. You can find him on Twitter at @larrybehrens and @PTFNewMexico or email at [email protected] 

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