Few can doubt the financial success of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and many laud the international effectiveness of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
But on carbon-reduction policy, Gates’ publicity-seeking charitable right hand seems to have scant idea what his secretive investment left hand is doing. And it’s taken months of prodding to get handlers of Gates’ broad financial empire to communicate at the most basic level.
With fanfare, last August the Gates Foundation invested about $150 million in a large carbon-trading fund designed to reduce carbon emissions of projects in China through something called the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism.
In January, Gates took the stage with Al Gore and Bono in Davos, Switzerland, in high-profile support for the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, which included addressing climate change as well as health improvement in developing countries.
Consortium seeks to build coal-burning plant
But back in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment LLC has put Gates’ dollars into Otter Tail Power Co., of Fergus Falls, Minn. Otter Tail leads a five-company consortium seeking to build the controversial Big Stone II coal-burning power plant, which would spew massive doses of the very carbon gases that Gates’ charitable arm is seeking to reduce elsewhere.
The discrepancy in purpose caught the eye of Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, and seven other legislators. In February they sent a letter inviting Gates to visit Minnesota to see “green investments we are making” that would provide “many opportunities to align the values of your foundation with your investment strategy.”
The letter noted that Cascade Investment has put enough of Gates’ money into Otter Tail to buy up 9 percent of the company.
From there, a legislative aide to Wagenius, Melissa Hysing, embarked on a futile attempt to get Gates to respond. She first was assured that a letter would be sent “shortly,” but it didn’t happen.
A number of calls by Hysing and MinnPost resulted in a series of clumsy dodges between Gates’ office at Microsoft, the foundation and Cascade Investment. Finally, Josh Freed in Gates’ media office said that Michael Larson of Cascade would address the issue. Despite Freed’s assurances, however, Larson wouldn’t return phone calls.
“I guess Mr. Larson doesn’t like reporters,” Freed said.
Last week Larson finally responded by letter, and noted the Gates’ investment in Otter Tail was “passive” with “no role in the operating decisions of the company.”
In addition to Wagenius, letter signers included most of the DFL’s legislative leadership on energy and environmental affairs: Sens. Ellen Anderson of St. Paul, Gary Kubly of Granite Falls, and Scott Dibble of Minneapolis; and Reps. Bill Hilty of Finlayson, Rick Hanson of South St. Paul, Frank Moe of Bemidji, and Aaron Peterson of Appleton.