The writing game

I wonder if people thought Marita Noon’s final column was actually about me since I hadn’t posted in several days. (However, I did a little work on the site and updated the SotW Tracker page.) But you may recall I made some comments at the end of her post regarding what she had chosen to do in her career beyond writing in and about the energy field.

Something you may have missed earlier this week ties into the plight of the energy worker, and it’s a shame Marita won’t be commenting on it here on my site. On Tuesday the United States Geological Survey (USGS) came out with the news that a west Texas oil field could be “the largest estimated continuous oil accumulation that USGS has assessed in the United States to date.” They estimated 20 billion barrels of oil could be recovered, which would supply our needs for three years just by itself. (Ironically, this field probably lies deep under Marita’s house.) It’s great news, but with a catch: the price of oil needs to rebound to $60 to $65 a barrel to make this bonanza worth recovering economically. According to an oil industry expert quoted by CNN:

Morris Burns, a former president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, told KWES the low price of oil – currently around $46 a barrel – means the oil will sit underground for the foreseeable future.

“We are picking up a few rigs every now and then but we won’t see it really take off until we (get) that price in the $60 to $65 range,” Burns told the station.

Many years ago I remember the price of gas getting under a dollar a gallon; this was probably back in the late 1980s/early 1990s. At the time oil had plunged to about $10 to $15 a barrel. For consumers it was great news but for oil companies and workers it was a desperate time. A few weeks before her “retirement” from energy writing and commentary, Marita had wrote what seemed like a counter-intuitive piece concerning the slowly increasing price of oil. But if you look at it from the perspective of an energy worker, the best of all worlds is a price where demand stays constant but profitable. Oil scraping $30 a barrel may have dropped our pump prices close to $1.50 a gallon but it was killing the domestic energy industry (which several OPEC members wanted it to do, as the U.S. is now their major competition.)

By the same token, Marita began her career in the energy field at a time when oil prices were sky-high and we truly needed to work out ways to make ourselves energy independent at a lower cost. (One such idea I played up in the summer of 2008 because it was done with such humor was the “NozzleRage” campaign. Unfortunately, their answer was a government mandate for flexfuel cars and additional requirements for ethanol.) But these prices also came with the benefit of sustaining the industry in such a manner that the fracking revolution created a boom in the energy industry and made previously dormant regions like the Dakotas and west Texas economically attractive again. (North Dakota, in particular, was depopulating prior to the Bakken oil boom because there was little there to attract young jobseekers who were abandoning the state in droves – by 2005 it had the largest percentage of residents age 85 and older.)

And Marita was sharing in that boom – as she noted, her “field of dreams fundraising model” was getting her enough $500 annual donations to provide a reasonable living. But as the industry suffered, her own revenue sources withered and it eventually led her to dismiss her PR person and in the end chased her away. (Had Hillary Clinton won, the result of her withdrawal from the punditry game would likely have the same but surely Marita would have considered herself a failure.)

In a roundabout way, this brings me to a point I began to make the other night: writing for a living is a difficult game at which to succeed. I found this out several years ago when I was out of work and tried to make a go of it – there are too many people out there chasing too few dollars, particularly in general interest writing. When I reviewed political websites during the campaign I openly questioned whether the people some hired to write their copy even lived in the country, which I can do because I have had to compete with people who can live on a few dollars a day. A penny per word nowadays is a huge amount to make for an article, but even if you wrote 5,000 words a day that doesn’t fly in America. Yet on competitive writing job sites you’ll often find people who are willing to take half that – or less – just to write copy. (And that doesn’t count the old adage used to trap aspiring writers who get convinced to write for nothing because “it’ll give you the exposure you need.” Yeah, right. Expect to double your salary every week from that point.)

So when a polished and experienced writer like Marita, who wrote several motivational and Christian books under her maiden name Marita Littauer and the energy columns under her initial married name Marita Noon (she has since remarried, but maintained the name for professional reasons) can’t make a go of it, one has to wonder what’s in it for others in that same predicament?

Now I have never done a “field of dreams” fundraising approach, although I have been known to “bleg” every once in awhile. And it brings a smile to my face when I see someone actually clicked the donate button up top and chipped into my PayPal account. But as I have told you when I left the political party game (and slowed down on my own writing pace to some degree) part of the reason I stepped back was to write a second book – hopefully learning from the mistakes I made with the first one. That will continue nonetheless because I believe I will be making important points and contributing to dialogue going forward. The same also goes for this website – I really meant to write this column Wednesday but was sidetracked for several reasons. So you get it late Saturday night instead.

Sometimes I wonder, though, if my priorities are quite where they should be. Truly I enjoy writing, but I also have to make sure to be a good Christian, husband, stepdad, and employee. So I may never get back to (or even arrive at) the place where some said I had to be to maintain a successful blog, meaning lots of content updated frequently. After all, I often get the opportunity to sell article space on my site for dubious reasons, probably someone else’s marketing scam. I’m not going to damage my brand like that.

But the reason I went into this spiel is to make it plain I can understand why people get so frustrated with the writing game. We seem to be the last thing people need, but I happen to think we are the most indispensable people out there when it comes to making sense of the world. For that reason, Marita’s insight (as well as that of several others I have known through the years) will be missed.

Someone else’s ‘new normal’

Every so often I point out how other states are taking advantage of avenues our fair state of Maryland cannot – or will not – compete in. One such area is energy exploration, which has benefited states like Texas and Alaska for decades, and more recently turned North Dakota from a state which was stagnant in population and lacking opportunity to America’s fastest-growing state, with a “new normal” of energy-led growth. Indeed, taxable sales increased 28.7% from 2011 to 2012, according to North Dakota Tax Commissioner Cory Fong.

Obviously in the several states results may vary, and Maryland doesn’t have that same petroleum-rich land mass that North Dakota does. But in the western end of our state we do have the potential for some nice job creation if we allow the tapping of the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation like Pennsylvania has done for several years. And who knows what we could find under Maryland’s offshore waters? It’s doubtful we’ll ever be confused with a state like Louisiana, where dozens of oil platforms lurk just offshore, but the potential is there for a healthy bump in economic activity should we choose to take advantage of this.

One thing which seems to be lost in the question about whether oil and natural gas exploration would be good for the state is the sort of jobs created. Say what you will about the energy industry, but they tend to pay better than flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Sure, it’s likely to be demanding physical work for those who are semi-skilled, but they would be making a living sufficient to support a family – reminiscent of a bygone era where dad went to work 40 hours a week at the auto plant “makin’ Thunderbirds” (as the old Bob Seger song went) and mom could afford to stay home with the kids. And it also brings up the point about not necessarily needing a college degree (and the tens of thousands of dollars of associated debt) to make a good living. Then again, those who have the intelligence and drive to be engineers or even technicians and complete the college training required would find a very welcoming field. Our neighbors to the west in West Virginia have heeded this call.

Back in the 1970s, at the height of the oil crisis, those of us in rural areas had a saying that we should trade the OPEC nations a bushel for a barrel – they had plenty of oil but they needed food to feed themselves – and we had plenty of it. But in America we could develop the potential to sell other nations both the bushel AND the barrel simply by getting out of the way of energy production and dropping this silly notion about producing ethanol from corn.

Why not get the best of both worlds? All we need is some truly forward-thinking leadership, the kind which realizes we have the potential under our very feet to be dependent on no one outside of North America for our energy needs and future growth therein.

A path not taken – why?

It’s interesting that last night I pointed out in passing North Dakota’s success in bringing their per-capita income to the cusp of the top five in the nation when even more encouraging news recently came out for them. This update is from the Energy Tomorrow blog in a post by Mark Green:

The U.S. Geological Survey has new estimates for oil and natural gas in the Williston Basin shale area that simply blows the doors off previous estimates:

  • 3.65 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil for the Bakken Formation.
  • 3.73 billion barrels for the Three Forks Formation.
  • The total, 7.38 billion barrels, is a two-fold increase over USGS’ 2008 estimate, which included only the Bakken Formation because Three Forks wasn’t thought to be productive.

If you’re wondering where the Williston Basin is, perhaps this USGS map will help. Note that this formation is different than the Marcellus Shale formation which encompasses the western end of Maryland. But consider that North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and while it’s not necessarily glamorous tasks requiring a master’s degree or specialized training, there is a lot of work available out on the plains.

But the principle outlined later in the piece by Green remains true regardless of the conditions:

The dramatic increases in these oil and natural gas estimates are a credit to industry initiative and the application of ideas and technology – in non-federal areas where oil and natural gas development is supported and encouraged. These reserves underscore the game-changing nature of unconventional oil and natural gas – again, thanks to hydraulic fracturing – that could support the creation of 3.5 million jobs and more than $5.1 trillion in industry cumulative capital spending by 2035, according to an IHS Global study.

Obviously the small portion of our state which happens to lie within the Marcellus Shale region would only see a fraction of that benefit. But what about offshore oil? We don’t know because no one is being allowed to do the necessary leg work to drill and find out. There could be an energy windfall off Ocean City which has nothing to do with thirty-story high wind turbines but we can’t say. Indeed, we could have no viable oil deposits there, either.

But factor in that just five years ago no one thought the Three Forks Formation was commercially viable for oil, and now there’s the potential for 3.7 billion barrels. (Granted, our daily consumption is about 20 million barrels of oil per day so by itself the field isn’t huge, about six months’ worth. Yet you can add that to all our other potential, not to mention the near-certainty that technology can eventually enhance our findings.)

Because I favor the expansion of an energy type which has been proven to be efficient and relatively cheap in comparison to other modes, some have called me a shill for the oil industry. Sorry, I don’t work for them – although if they can use a writer, I certainly would entertain the offer. I just happen to know that an economy which is growing the right way needs to expand their usage of energy so mankind has to expend less and allows us more time and effort to devote to improving our lot in life.

As I said yesterday, the part of the state which tends to vote against its own best interests is the part which, in this case, is sending useful idiots who believe the garbage about the “dangers” of fracking to Annapolis. No, the process is not risk-free, but no endeavor worth doing is. We’ve placed ourselves with New York as two states falling far behind the curve on energy exploration, but 2014 provides us the chance to correct that mistake.

One man’s observations

Just because I didn’t feature them as prominently as I had last year didn’t mean I wasn’t interested in what Delegate Mike McDermott had to say about the recently-concluded General Assembly session. Granted, once the gauntlet was thrown away last November by an electorate more interested in glitz and glamour than seriously pondering our state’s future we figured the path was clear for Martin O’Malley to create his legacy for 2016. And if you think Democrats in Maryland don’t have those sorts of dreams of reflected glory from electing the first President from Maryland in the state’s long history, think again. Sure, there are a few who are allowed to stray from the party line in the interest of political self-preservation, but when the chips are down they will come through.

This was particularly true when it came to the idea of making the state as hostile as possible to small businesses, as McDermott points out:

Our Corporate Tax rates remain the highest in the region and our layers of government process insure that we continue to be slow to respond and costly for business start ups.

McDermott uses the obvious examples of offshore wind, the submission of our state to the effects of Obamacare, the increased gasoline tax, and the adoption of last year’s “rain tax” as examples of how our state is lagging further and further behind our neighbors. Yet aside from the outrage we exhibit in our little corner of the state, we seem to be having little if any impact on the direction Annapolis is taking.

Unfortunately for us, the majority Democrats – and some of the more centrist, “go along to get along” Republicans – are a reflection of the areas in which they live; areas which seem to be succeeding despite themselves thanks to the heavy influence of Washington, D.C. on our state. In the city of my birth, Toledo, we had a saying that if Detroit sneezed we would catch the cold because we were so overly dependent on one industry for our economic livelihood – even moreso than the Motor City. Here in Maryland the I-95 corridor, as I call it, plays the same role Detroit did for Toledo by calling its tune. My contention is we would be in the same dire straits as a state like Rhode Island or Nevada if it weren’t for having thousands of workers on the federal payroll living within our borders.

Indeed, Maryland is a state where government checks aren’t just for the poorest among us but also feed a growing number of well-to-do families. Consider the fact that Maryland has been a state in the top 5 of per-capita income for all but one year since 1990 – in 2008 we were 6th. States which have outranked us have generally done so on the strength of the New York or Boston metro areas and a lack of poorer rural regions. (Note that Washington, D.C. would be far and away #1 if it were ranked, though.) It’s also worth pondering, though, that a state is now close on Maryland’s heels and threatening its position in the top five – thanks to the strength of a booming energy industry, North Dakota has surged upward 21 spots in just five years.

Yet rural Maryland lags well behind their I-95 corridor counterparts. There are areas of our state which fare just as poorly as those states in the Deep South do, and they don’t receive the economic benefits of having federal government employees on every block. Unfortunately, the policies which discourage private investment in the state hurt rural areas more than urban ones, for there are some businesses with enough economies of scale – and desire to be closer to those high-income families in Montgomery and Howard counties – which can either grin and bear the increased costs or can otherwise pass them along to end users.

And while the idea of job creation was one of the issues in the recent election here in Salisbury, the reality is that we will have to succeed here despite the state’s best efforts to stymie our development in favor of agricultural preservation. It doesn’t matter to those in Annapolis and across the bay because they already have theirs, so if it’s to their advantage to keep us as a rural backwater which has to be kept in line every so often when it gets uppity, so be it. They’ll just punish us a little more until we learn our place again.

So what is the solution? Obviously we need to convince Maryland voters to stop voting against their best interests and instead promote the benefits of limited government and liberty. Granted, there are many thousands of Maryland voters who won’t get that hint because a limited government also would limit their government-backed paycheck but as I have said before the world needs ditchdiggers too. Enhance private industry and the best and brightest will find work – if we play our cards right, it could happen here in Maryland.

Entitled to their own facts

There are two sides to (almost) every story, and after being raked over the coals by a Change Maryland study which received national attention and offended the sensibilities of our governor – you know, the one who’s already mentally measuring the drapes in the Oval Office? – the empire struck back today with a meaningless bunch of mumbo-jumbo about “partisan organization,” “decisive actions taken,” and “third lowest state and local tax burden adjusting for income.”   Shoot, at least I parsed the actual study instead of picking out items which have little to do with Change Maryland’s point, although I thought it was telling that the O’Malley retort conveniently forgot to mention that those 2007 tax increases came with millions of dollars of additional spending.

Now that I’ve managed to get a breath in after that first paragraph, allow me to decipher what this really means: it was a direct hit to the O’Malley 2016 battleship. Obviously, the Change Maryland piece making it to CNBC – which, coincidentally, today put out their annual ranking of the top business-friendly states where Maryland only ranked 31st (a decline of 2 spots from last year) – had to be interpreted as a shot across the bow by O’Malley and Maryland Democrats. That’s why they had to make sure to paint Change Maryland as a “partisan organization.”

Yet it’s no surprise that Virginia and North Carolina, two states that Change Maryland highlighted as recipients of Maryland’s tax base loss, ranked #3 and #4 respectively in the CNBC survey. (Texas and Utah were first and second, while North Dakota rounded out the top 5. I also found it telling that right-to-work states comprised the top 7 in the rankings, 9 of the top 10, and 14 of the top 16; meanwhile, closed-shop states comprised the bottom 4 and 7 of the bottom 10.)

But there’s something that Governor O’Malley and his administration cannot paint over, and that’s the mounting frustration of many of Maryland’s working families who continue to see tax and fee increases to support higher and higher spending on those they see as not contributing to society, especially illegal immigrants. All around them, they see their cost of living going up with one exception: the value of their homes, which continues to plummet.

Maybe it’s not so acute in other parts of Maryland, like downtown Annapolis, but out here there’s a lot of worry. And the numbers don’t lie: on much of the Lower Shore – where good-paying jobs are hard to come by in a roaring economy, let alone the POR (Pelosi-Obama-Reid) economy we’re under now (h/t to Tom Blumer of Bizzy Blog for that acronym) – those who left Wicomico, Dorchester, and Somerset counties had higher incomes than the arrivals did. I would also bet that if the northeastern quadrant of Worcester County (Ocean City, Berlin, and Ocean Pines) were excluded that county’s numbers would be similar.

My fellow Salisbury blogger Julie Brewington took less than 3 minutes while driving back from Ocean City to explain the quandary many thousands of not-so-Free Staters find themselves in. She well represents the producers of this economy:

I would guess that she and her husband, if they left, would tilt the income scale of the outgoing a little bit upward from the $37,000 or so figure that I gleaned for Wicomico County from the Change Maryland study. And it’s not just that, as her family has fairly deep roots in the area.

But if people don’t feel economically welcomed to a place, they will leave. Of course, that’s only my opinion but it seems to be an option more and more of those private-sector job creators in Maryland seem to be considering, to the detriment of those of the rest of us who choose to stay and fight. Who can blame them, though?

Newt answered that question…

I love it when I’m ahead of the curve.

A few days ago I pondered the following as part of this post:

It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of push there is for something along the line of the ”drill here, drill now, pay less” campaign that got Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions group on the map.

Lo and behold, in my weekly update on everything Newt I read this:

As we see gas prices inching higher again, we think it is time for the return of Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less to fight the Obama administration’s war against American energy.

That’s why we’re re-launching Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less with a brand new website.

Please visit, sign the petition, and tell your friends, family, and co-workers about our effort.

The new website also has a number of tools to help our nation to drill here and drill now. You will be able to use the website to get key facts and information about the importance of domestic drilling, contact your Congressman and Senators, write a letter to your local paper, and get a “Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less.” bumper sticker for your car.

It’s just a slight variation of domain name from the 2008 effort, but the idea is the same. (It even leads to the same site.) Even after Congress allowed an offshore drilling ban to expire later in 2008 we haven’t made much progress in the last three years thanks to the occupant of the Oval Office.

As many recall in the 2008 campaign, the conventional wisdom six months out was that high gas prices could become an issue in that November’s election. Instead, we ended up pretty much with Tweedledum vs. Tweedledee as the Presidential race insofar as energy policy was concerned (Sarah Palin did the most to keep the drilling issue alive, but she was only a vice-presidential candidate) and the steep decline of the economy in September of that year actually make a difference in the respect that oil and gas prices returned to a more affordable level – therefore, the issue went by the wayside in discussions about TARP and bailouts.

At the moment, we stand even further away from the 2012 elections – needless to say, a lot can change in the course of a week, let alone 20 months. A week ago when I wrote the NozzleRage post, the Fukushima nuclear plants were intact and the Japanese were living life as normal – in the Japan disaster’s wake the price of oil plummeted sharply.

Even so, it doesn’t mean we should abandon efforts to secure our own supplies. While some say we have but a tiny percentage of oil reserves, they conveniently forget that much more is locked away by shortsighted federal restrictions on land use. American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard recently opined:

The administration is well on its way toward creating higher gasoline prices for Americans.

To get more oil and gas, we need more access.  Placing more government lands and waters off-limits and forcing companies to focus on areas that may show little promise even if already under lease will not solve our energy challenges.

The best thing the administration can do on gasoline prices is to encourage greater oil production and greater fuel efficiency here at home.

While I’d personally prefer the market set fuel efficiency standards, I agree with Gerard on the idea of encouraging more drilling. For example, the Bakken Formation in North Dakota has an estimated 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil – ramping up production there could easily make a dent in the 616 million barrels of oil we imported from the Persian Gulf in 2009. Even better, oil shale in Western states could hold up to 1.5 trillion barrels of oil. With that, we could fill up our Ford Explorers on the cheap for years to come and break OPEC’s back.

All it takes is some people with the stones to tell the environmentalist wackos to pound (oil) sand. Unfortunately, we don’t currently have that leadership in Washington and it may be ten years or more before this bears fruit – remember, we have to get rid of activist liberal judges who place the interest of critters over creators.

So we may be stuck with high pump prices for now – but the groundwork needs to be done for future prosperity. What we said three years ago still holds true – drill here, drill now, and pay less.

What’s overlooked in the top story

Today it was announced that the Gulf oil spill, better known around these parts as the Deepwater Horizon disaster, was voted the top news story of 2010 in an annual AP poll of editors and news directors.

But there’s an overlooked element of the story that may last longer than the effects of the light sweet crude which spewed from the ruins of a wellhead (and has mainly either dissipated in the seawater or been removed as tar balls onshore.)

It was the perfect excuse for the Obama Administration to place a lengthy ban on giving out new permits for offshore drilling and then rescind the plans for new drilling leases in offshore waters. In turn, that’s costing our economy thousands of jobs, as Jack Gerard of API points out:

“The oil and natural gas industry is a reliable vehicle for growing the economy and creating good-paying jobs. This decision (to cancel new offshore leases) shuts the door on new development off our nation’s coasts and effectively ensures that new American jobs will not be realized. It will stifle investment, deny billions in revenue for critical government services and increase our dependence on foreign energy sources.

“The oil and natural gas industry is committed to safe and environmentally responsible operations, and both the industry and regulators have added new safeguards to ensure such operations. This reversal on new lease sales off America’s coasts comes on top of a de facto moratorium, which has all but stopped new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Obviously the story focused on the economic damage to the Gulf seafood industry. Indeed, it was a very tough blow to their finances but for many assisting BP or filing claims for damages with them, they were made as whole as possible. Yet taking away the livelihoods of thousands of oil company workers didn’t seem to be nearly as high on the priority list, and little attention was paid to their demands when they had their own “Rally for Economic Survival” back in July.

Yet where the energy industry is allowed to do its job, there are jobs being created. An oil boom in, of all places, North Dakota has led them to the lowest unemployment rate in the nation (3.8% in November) and the state is doing its best to encourage the Williston Basin boom. And private industry is following suit – see how this works?

On the other hand, so-called ‘green’ jobs tend to be one-time production jobs for the components and limited-duration construction jobs for installations. Once you set a windmill or solar panel, it’s not going to create any new jobs.

It seems to me that the government is quite happy to create or save jobs in the pencil-pushing field, but when it comes to promoting employment by making stuff and extracting natural resources within our borders they seem to fall short (even if they have the prospect of being their precious union jobs.) We’ve lost something around 8 million jobs since the employment peak a couple years back, and while the energy industry might not be able to bring them all back we certainly can make a dent in the number.

That is the story which needs to be reported. Spread the word.