Letter From Langdon: Time to Quit Digging

Dad knew when to stop digging. With this country's energy policies, it's time we learned this lesson.

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One of the things I remember best about my Dad was his shovel, because Dad’s shovel was eternally shiny and rust free. The last thing he always did when he finished digging on the farm was clean and oil his spade to perfection.

From irrigation ditches to postholes, Dad could dig about anything. But even he knew that when you’re too deep in the hole, the first order of business is Stop Digging.

When oil was $12 a barrel we thought we’d never see the end of it. America just kept right on excavating. Then oil went to $70 a barrel and the hole got deeper. At $150 a barrel we put the shovel down and started to think. That’s when America decided that never again will we ever allow ourselves to be suckered into depending on imported petroleum.

That didn’t last long.

When oil fell in a crack at $70 a barrel, we went right back digging. 

Dad would not approve.

If “Drill, Baby, Drill” is our best solution, then Baby’s drill had better be shiny and oiled, because right now the United States of America imports 60% of the oil we use. In fact, we’ve never imported more. Add to that the fact our Asian friends, the ones who loan us money and keep Wal-Mart stocked, are leading the pack in alternative energy development. 

The dirt is really starting to fly.

While Chevrolet was negotiating a loan to make payments on their payments, China was building factories to make electric cars, solar cells, wind generators…just about everything anyone needs to be energy independent. 

Some say China’s electric cars are getting close to being the best in the world.

They’re building them by the thousands and selling most to their own people. But analysts say that will change as more Chinese products find their way into our markets.

That goes right along with our current trade policies that I call “Buy, Baby, Buy”

According to the folks at the January 27th Clean Energy Works Forum in Washington DC, the US gets 60% of its oil from foreign sources. If Baby gets lucky and digs up a gusher, all that oil will be sold on the open market. America might never see a single gallon of it unless we outbid Europe and Asia. So supply is important to stabilizing world prices in the short run, but not helpful to our long term outlook as nations with expanding industrial bases have more money to spend.

Either way, it’s Pay, Baby, Pay.

Both Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina took time to visit with forum participants in the Russell Senate Office Building. Graham, a Republican, went out on a conservative limb by calling for carbon regulation, saying that only through cap and trade would America find the resolve to be truly energy independent. That’s a fact some forward-looking investors like Warren Buffet have recognized for quite some time.

But there were others who saw this coming, too, like the company based in India that bought a down-on-its-luck transformer factory in the Show Me State where Nick Nickelson works. Nick Attended the Clean Energy Forum as president of IUE-CWA Local 86114 in Washington, Missouri. 

Nick said the place where he works was on hard times because of the recession. Business was bad even though the quality of the products Nick and his co-workers put out was second to none. Now with fresh investment in wind and solar power starting to pick up, the market for high quality transformers like those made at Nick’s factory are finding markets while safeguarding American jobs.

Richard Oswald/Daily Yonder
Hawaii state Rep. Cynthia Thielen spoke to the Clean Energy Forum.

There were plenty of stories like Nick’s, and other kinds of stories, too. Like the one from Hawaii State Representative Cynthia Thielen, who came to remind delegates that 90% of the Aloha State’s energy needs are provided by imported oil. Cynthia said that on the Islands, the military is the strongest proponent of renewable energy.

Some folks want to make this energy thing seem like a partisan issue, but as Representative Thielen and Senator Graham (both Republicans) said, this is not a Republican issue. It is not a Democratic issue. It is an issue of national security. 

While Graham believes that continued drilling for more fossil fuel supplies is an important part of our energy security, he still supports carbon regulation. It’s kind of a one-two punch for energy independence.

That’s what cap and trade does; it regulates carbon by establishing a market for it. In order to comply with EPA regulations, coal-fired power generators don’t need to modernize right away, but slowly over time as older equipment must be replaced. In the meantime they just partner with a farm or industry that removes carbon from the air.

Winston, a Farmer’s Union friend of mine, says, “You hafta call it something else. Because all the farmers’ll say is, ‘We don’t want cap and trade.’”

Winston has a point. Thielen and Graham haven’t won over fellow conservatives who believe “cap and trade” caps profits, too. But farms could be the biggest beneficiaries of carbon trading when they sell the greenhouse gas credits from their fields, ethanol refining, biomass pellets, methane capture, or farm-based wind and solar energy.

In these troubled times with the domestic budget facing cutbacks, farmers can no longer be sure that low prices will get the same helpful subsidy consideration from USDA. That means new energy products and markets might make a difference between earning a profit and going in the hole.

Two retired military officers, Marine Brigadier General Steve Cheney and Army Major General Paul Eaton, agreed that climate and energy are important to national security. General Cheney said that sometimes our focus on current problems like energy costs keeps us from focusing on problems down the road. Things like our climate — and energy independence. General Eaton, whose three children serve their country in the military, agreed, saying, “What happens to them depends on climate change (and US energy policy).”

Richard Oswald/Daily Yonder
Former military officers told the conference that energy policy and environmental policy are also security policies.

A lot of farmers haven’t made the connection that without an energy bill and carbon trading, there’s no real fundamental support for the renewable energy products we rely on to make our farming profitable today. Farmers, right along with General Eaton’s offspring, are at the mercy of big oil and lobbyists.

Ethanol was struggling against competition from petroleum and the gasoline additive MTBE, until MTBE was found to be polluting ground water. EPA banned the additive and mandated that ethanol be the only oxygenate available for blending. Big oil argued to have the entire oxygenate rule rescinded because they didn’t want to buy our product. It was the only fuel additive they couldn’t manufacture themselves. EPA stuck by their guns, and blended gasoline remains a requirement, which is the main reason most US ethanol refiners are still in business. 

Even if they don’t want to, the petroleum companies have to provide us with a market. Which is good because, let’s face it, not many farmers own a filling station.

Anytime a farmer says there’s nothing wrong with CO2 in the atmosphere, he’s also saying we don’t need biofuels. It’s simple as that. The longer rural communities oppose carbon trading, the deeper we burrow under big oil’s control.

Sometimes digging isn’t all bad. It gets the crops watered and holds the livestock in. It even keeps foxhole soldiers out of harms way.   

But for farmers, digging for the wrong reason just makes the hole deeper.

 

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