Today I work into the fourth part of my series, on energy policy.
It’s clear to me that if the state wants to become more successful at improving the standard of living of its citizens, we have to find ways to make energy more accessible and less expensive for the average consumer. That’s the starting point for my critique on energy policy.
There are many points the Republican candidates seem to agree on, which is to be expected.
David Craig: Craig said it is also time to stop studying fracking and enable natural gas extraction to take place in Western Maryland in an environmentally-responsible manner. (press release, October 4, 2013)
Harford County Executive David R. Craig, who also is seeking the Republican nomination, said estimates show fracking in Garrett and Allegany counties will bring as many as 14,000 jobs.
If the state continues to study the issue, the people of Western Maryland will suffer as business go to frack in neighboring Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, he said. (Gazette, September 19, 2013)
Ron George: Make Energy More Affordable, Available, and Less Dependent on unstable governments half way around the world. This includes developing natural gas resources and using clean coal for our own needs. (campaign site)
“I have to let you know that I’ve really struggled with the issue and studied the issue, I’ve listened to the fears and looked at the science,” he said. “And I’ve come down on the side of natural gas drilling for ourselves, for Maryland’s use.”
Fracking now will help the state with its energy costs and diversify its alternative energy production, said George, a GOP candidate for governor.
“We have to have other alternatives that are clean,” he said. (Gazette, September 19, 2013)
“Before we go building 40 of these [wind turbines] offshore, let’s do this step by step,” said Del. Ron George, R-Anne Arundel. He offered an amendment to build one wind turbine to study the viability of offshore wind in Maryland. He said the Virginia legislature approved a similar plan on Wednesday.
“It will test the economics of large scale offshore wind projects, it will test the mechanics of construction and issues related to offshore wind projects, and it will study the ability of offshore wind projects to withstand weather conditions” 11 miles off the coast of Ocean City.
“It is really doing the next step, so we don’t go wasting money, and we make sure we do it right,” George said. (Maryland Reporter, March 29, 2012)
Charles Lollar: I support development of Maryland’s Marchellus shale natural gas reserves. (campaign website, “Natural Resources”)
Demand that public utilities be held accountable to their customers. (campaign website, “Accountability”)
In order to reduce (energy prices) Lollar wants to remove subsidies and allow all forms of energy to compete on their merits. This includes allowing fracking in Maryland’s Marcellus shale so that natural gas can lower the state’s energy costs. He sees O’Malley’s subsidies for wind energy as a way of picking winners and losers in the market, and opposes to the handouts. (Real Clear Markets, September 3, 2013)
Lollar said the state could quickly come out of its perennial deficit if it allowed fracking in Maryland. Lollar emphasized the practice would have to be well regulated, but not so much so as to stop businesses from existing. (SoMDNews, November 1, 2013)
“We absolutely need to take advantage of that resource, not just as another energy source but to put people to work,” Charles Lollar, Republican candidate for governor, said of natural gas. (Gazette, September 19, 2013)
I think they [Pepco] have an unfair relationship advantage. I’m not prepared to blame the Democratic party but I am prepared to blame the individual people that have made the system what it is. I do believe that when you have an unbalanced system that heavily favors one party over another, this is the kind of response that you get. There’s a lot of strong-arming. There are strong and forceful relationships that are literally causing people to do things that in their right mind, they would not do.
The power held at the highest levels of our state is incredible and it’s crushing good elected officials and appointed commissioners that want to do the right thing. Let’s put the blame where it needs to be. This idea of charging someone a fee before they get appropriate services is wrong no matter what party you’re from. (Bethesda Now, November 7, 2013)
Insofar as energy policy goes, our friends across the aisle greet the issue with reactions ranging from radio silence (Anthony Brown) to a belief that poultry waste can be a “responsible investment” (Doug Gansler) to a pedal-to-the-metal emphasis on so-called “clean energy” and outright hostility to fracking (Heather Mizeur). None of these proposals meet the twin tests of reliability and market worthiness that coal, oil, and natural gas do. In particular, one has to ponder the viability of poultry waste as a fuel after the Waterkeeper Alliance picked on one family for months in an losing effort to make an example of them, a move one local environmental advocate said “definitely sets us back.”
So what I believe had “definitely set us back” is the de facto moratorium on fracking Maryland has had in effect for the last few years, as the state continues to twiddle its thumbs and study the issue at length in “setting an extremely high bar for industry.” Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has seemed to find a reasonable balance between environment and energy; thus natural gas exploration and extraction is creating jobs and revenue for those counties fortunate enough to sit atop the Marcellus Shale formation.
I think David Craig gets this part of the picture, but there’s a lot more to energy policy than just fracking. It would be good to know where he stands on other market-based reforms like repealing the wind energy bill and renewable energy portfolio – as you’ll see in a future segment David has his eye on restoring a balance between economy and environment. So I give him 4.5 of 8 points.
Ron George took a while to come down on the side of fracking, but also seems to foresee more of an “all-of-the-above” approach. Included in that was advocating a single-unit pilot project for offshore wind, despite the fact the bill he attempted unsuccessfully to amend, if passed, had a fiscal note which warned “State expenditures…increase minimally beginning in FY 2013 and significantly beginning in FY 2017 due to higher electricity prices.” Perhaps his view on this has evolved, however, as he did not offer the same amendment in 2013 and voted against O’Malley’s bill. As you’ll see below, he should get credit for weighing evidence.
But it’s difficult to reconcile George’s stance with his previous votes on the subject. Maybe he’s reached a level of satisfaction with the state’s regulations and if so he’s a little more for red tape than my taste would dictate; for that answer I need more guidance. At this point I’ll score him as a solid 4 of 8 points.
Charles Lollar stands with the rest of the Republicans on fracking, which is good. He also makes it sound like O’Malley’s wind folly would be terminated, which is great. But there’s one piece of the puzzle which troubles me greatly.
It’s noted in the Bethesda Now story, where Lollar was quoted as saying “charging someone a fee before they get appropriate services is wrong,” that the forum was intentionally held without a PEPCO representative present. Had Lollar studied the issue more carefully he would have known this rate increase was based on an executive order from Governor O’Malley, who touted the increase as “hardening” the electric grid. The idea is to accelerate the process of preparing the grid for major weather events, which may have been the point brought out by a PEPCO spokesperson had one been invited to the event.
One thing about being an elected official is that you generally hear all sides of the story as part of your duties in office. On the other hand, coming in without that experience means you have to work at the issue. On his front page, Charles claims his goal is to ”bring together people of different political beliefs, talents and backgrounds to develop solutions to difficult problems.” Yet he attended a forum where a party to a dispute is sandbagged, and that’s disappointing.
It’s populism to pick on a utility without hearing their side of the story. So my question is whether “well regulated” for fracking will be determined by the hype or the facts. Based on this concern I can only give Charles 2.5 out of 8 points at this time.
The next portion is something I would anticipate the candidates do quite well in: Second Amendment rights. I’m hoping to follow that up with a discussion of what the candidates would do about Obamacare, and for that answer I had to ask directly.
It’s also worth pointing out that this process would evolve. In his answer to my Obamacare question, Ron George elaborated a little on education so I believe I should add that portion in. It wouldn’t surprise me as the campaign rolls along that these pieces might be revised once or twice along the way; you should expect no less.
As you all know I have an interest in the energy field and a disdain for the unproven – so I’m no big fan of technology that’s not reliable 24/7/365. While renewable energy has its uses in limited applications, such as the solar panels on one’s roof or the windmill which augments the rural homestead, all of these sources need a backup for when we endure a week’s worth of cloudy days or still weather. So I have a bias toward the tried-and-true energy sources of coal, oil, and natural gas.
Having said that, it amuses me when I see the potential for infighting among the environmentalist crowd as we could have a battle royale between the animal rights crowd and the renewable energy set – the reason: a study published in the journal BioScience and gleefully critiqued by Steven Hayward at Powerline estimates that 600,000 or more bats are killed each year by wind turbines – a much higher toll than previously thought. And as Michael Todd, writing at Pacific Standard, explains, it’s not for the reason you might think:
Given that wind turbines are basically a collection of whirring blades, you might assume that the bats found dead have been sliced and diced. You might also wonder how an animal that uses radar to find a single mosquito in the dark could fail to sense a monstrous wind turbine. The University of Calgary’s Erin Baerwald explained this to Discovery News in 2008: “When people were first starting to talk about the issue, it was ‘bats running into the turbine blades.’ We always said, ‘No, bats don’t run into things.’ Bats can detect and avoid all kinds of structures,” and are even better at detecting stuff that’s moving. No, they’re exploding. As I learned last year, “Baerwald and her colleagues discovered that bats’ ‘large, pliable lungs’ blow up from change in air pressure created by moving blades. Up the 90 percent of the dead bats they examined showed the internal bleeding consistent with their argument. Birds, by the way, have different kinds of lungs so their deaths are from the more predictable blunt-force trauma.”
Of course, bats are very creepy creatures and tend to be a nuisance if they get into your house. But they have one tremendously useful purpose: keeping the mosquito population at bay. A commentator on Hayward’s post writes about watching bats fly around at dusk and I can vouch for the fact that it is interesting to watch them maneuver around in the fading light of a summer evening, gorging themselves on those pesky bugs.
And the problem seems to be worst in the Appalachian part of the country, which includes the western part of Maryland. While it’s not prime territory for efficient windmills, that area is probably the most desirable in the state for the purpose.
Yet there is another energy source where the two westernmost Maryland counties are prime territory, and that’s the Marcellus Shale formation where natural gas is plentiful deep underground – and by deep I mean hundreds and hundreds of feet below the aquifers. I point this out because portions of New York state endure some of the same effects as their Marcellus cousins in Maryland; both are primarily rural areas which can use an economic shot in the arm. As is pointed out in a Wall Street Journal editorial from last week by Fred Siegel, those areas of southern New York along the Pennsylvania border suffer from the same faraway NIMBYism that the western panhandle of Maryland has to deal with – those who live nowhere near the area think they know best.
But unlike Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, whose sole response has been to study the subject to death, his potential Democratic presidential rival from New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, at least was willing to allow some limited fracking in that specific region – that is, until he was told by the environmental extremists, “we’ll cream you if you open New York state to fracking.” While neither the western edge of Maryland nor that five-county area of southern New York along the Pennsylvania border (from Steuben County on the west to Broome County on the east and including adjacent Chenango County) has the worst unemployment numbers in their respective states of Maryland or New York, the fact is they can do better.
And it’s not just the energy companies booming – this story by Barbara Miller in southwest Pennsylvania’s Observer-Reporter newspaper (h/t Energy Tomorrow) points out the financial gains in just two of the state’s counties. Quoted in the story was Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi:
I don’t want to use the word envious, but (other counties are) struggling and they do not have this resource to help them balance their budgets.
While amounts from $6 million to $18 million are drops in the bucket for a state budget, they can potentially be huge for some of the rural counties affected. Energy companies are accustomed to paying a fair royalty fee to local governments, knowing the market will support that toll while allowing a reasonable profit.
So, as you’ll see in the next week or so when my candidate dossier on energy is complete, there’s a big difference in stance between Maryland Democrats and Republicans on the fracking issue. Apparently most Democrats are happy with blowing up bats and chopping up birds, but Republicans want to create jobs.
I got an e-mail today where the sender said this:
…one faction of one party in one branch of government — shouldn’t hijack our economy in an attempt to force through a failed, partisan agenda. That’s not how our system works — and that’s not a precedent we can abide.
Of course, Barack Obama was talking about House Republicans in an e-mail exhorting me to donate to House Democrat challengers, but one could easily change the argument around to indict the executive branch.
In just one example under Obama, the EPA has attempted to regulate particular energy companies and methods of operation out of business. It’s part of a broad program in which the administration planned to regulate America’s energy future, and as we’ve seen in the two-plus years since this “blueprint” was announced, the only positive change was through private-sector investment in oil and natural gas. Yet when the EPA proposes job-killing regulations, will Barack Obama claim he didn’t know that was coming, either?
And if you want to extend the argument, it was one faction of one party in one branch of government which gave us the Obamacare that House Republicans were objecting to. Remember, the only bipartisan vote for Obamacare was on the “nay” ledger, as a number of Democrats voted against Obamacare. And there’s no question that its adoption has certainly hijacked our economy.
So let’s pick up Barack Obama’s argument again:
If members of Congress and their constituents don’t like a policy, they can argue for their side. They can debate other candidates, lay out their plan, and let the voters decide. That’s how our elections — and our democracy — are supposed to work.
Laying aside the obvious flaw – in that we are a Constitutional republic, not a democracy – it seems to me the voters indeed decided. At worst, they prefer a divided government, although the stronger signal was sending a net gain of 63 House seats and six Senate seats in 2010. Conversely, Obama was re-elected by a slim margin in 2012 (over a somewhat weak Republican candidate from a divided party) but had the very short coattails of a net 10 seat pickup.
But Barack Obama can deliver the tough talk in front of a friendly audience because he’s most at home campaigning, not leading. (Or more precisely leading from behind.) Now that America has received a taste of how Obamacare will affect them, Obama has a pretty hard sell if he has to convince his base.
I ran across an interesting piece of polling thanks to the Energy Tomorrow blog. Their American Petroleum Institute parent group commissioned a Harris Poll of likely voters in four states – Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia – and asked them a series of questions to gauge their support for offshore drilling. As I would expect, the topline numbers showing support for the practice are quite solid, ranging from 64% in Florida to 77% in South Carolina. (Virginia weighed in at 67% and North Carolina at 65%, so it worked out to roughly 2/3 overall.)
But before you assume this is going to be another shill for offshore drilling (which I indeed support) I wanted to point out a glaring flaw in the poll methodology. For example, read through the Virginia polling data and see if you can figure out what’s missing. I’ll give you a second.
The first piece of the puzzle I would have liked to see would be a breakdown of support in coastal areas vs. inland. Using Virginia as an example, it would be nice to know how the question did in the 757 area code, which covers the Norfolk area and the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I would bet that support in that particular area was closer to 50-50, if not slightly negative.
But the key omission was the question: “Would you support offshore drilling off the coastline of your state?” The API’s point is that much of our coastline is off-limits to drilling because of shortsighted policies which ignore the overall safety record of the industry as well as the “peak oil” hysteria helped along by those same environmentalists who wouldn’t mind putting aquatic birds at risk with offshore wind turbines. But their point would have been buttressed even better if they had a clear majority of Virginians (or any other affected state) indicate that drilling off their coastline was an acceptable practice.
While these particular states were probably selected due to the length of their coastline, I wonder how Maryland and Delaware would feel with the same question posed to them. Granted, between the two there’s just 59 miles of Atlantic coastline but they indeed have oceanfront within both states so they could be hosting oil exploration and extraction in their waters someday. My guess is that they would still fall in the 60 percent range as far as drilling support, but only run 30-35% for drilling off their coastline. (A large part of that might be because so much of it is state- or federally-controlled parkland.)
Certainly it’s reassuring that offshore drilling still enjoys support after all its bad press over the last half-decade, but I’m not convinced the impetus is there yet for much motion on the issue. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the question is pretty much moot until 2017 at the earliest so we have time to create the necessary shift in public perception.
Over the last couple days, a segment of the Maryland Republican Party is scratching its head over the absence of gubernatorial candidate Charles Lollar from several high-profile events: last month’s Andy Harris First District Bull Roast, the Conservative Victory PAC Ken Cuccinelli fundraiser (which was sponsored by several Maryland politicians), the Prince George’s County Lincoln Day Dinner with Lt. Col. Allen West, and most recently the state party’s Oktoberfest gathering in Timonium Saturday night. The conventional wisdom argument is that these were lost opportunities to impress the party brass.
But this may also presuppose Lollar wasn’t out meeting with “regular Joe” voters, and some say a lot of these gatherings would be time better spent knocking on doors or making phone calls. So which is it? I don’t know, but my feeling is that we all need to get back to basics and begin to compare just where each of the three major declared candidates stand on important issues facing the state.
A year and a half before the 2012 Presidential election, I began a process of grading the candidates in the race at the time on a number of issues. I think it’s time to repeat the process, with some different parameters because the issues aren’t always congruent between state and national elections – for example, I don’t have to worry about trade or the Long War but I do have concerns about agricultural issues and necessary changes to the state political system, meanwhile, some issues grow or contract in importance because of recent state developments. But I like the 100-point system so I will adapt it to suit.
So the 2014 monoblogue endorsement will be based on the following formula:
- Election/campaign finance reform (3 points)
- Illegal immigration (5 points)
- Dealing with Obamacare (7 points)
- Energy policy (8 points)
- Education (9 points)
- Second Amendment (11 points)
- War on Rural Maryland (12 points)
- Role of government (13 points)
- Job creation and transportation (14 points)
- Fiscal conservatism/taxation (15 points)
Once I add or subtract three points for various intangibles of my choosing, I’ll come up with the candidate who I think will best serve Maryland. Granted, my endorsement will only be worth the pixels they’re darkening but at least some thought will be put into why this candidate is the best one for Maryland. (Keep in mind that any of these three would be vastly superior to Anthony Brown, Doug Gansler, Heather Mizeur, or anyone else Democrats put up.) Otherwise, I come in with no preconceived notions with the exception that the other declared GOP candidates in the race don’t have the campaign or the presence to achieve any more than a tiny percentage of the vote so they’re not included; also, this is subject to update if/when Larry Hogan enters the race.
So now that you have the basic concepts, how about some specifics of what I’m getting at for each point? These are questions I may be able to find answers for within the candidates’ own websites, but it’s more likely I need further guidance. I have had the chance to hear all three declared candidates speak on at least two occasions apiece so I might have a decent idea where they’ll go, but it never hurts to ask. With that, here goes:
- Election/campaign finance reform: Will you aggressively pursue the redistricting revision case in court; if we succeed can we have 141 single-member districts? Where do you stand on current reporting requirements: too tight, too loose, or just right? What about getting after local boards of elections and telling them to clean up their voter rolls?
- Illegal immigration: Will you take the 287 (g) program used in Frederick County statewide? How about rescinding recent changes to drivers’ license laws in Maryland? And what about in-state tuition – do you revisit this issue? What about withholding a portion of state funds from sanctuary cities? Cooperation with the federal E-Verify program? What about policies allowing status checks such as those in Arizona?
- Dealing with Obamacare: Do we eliminate the state exchange? Would you pursue a waiver for the state if one becomes available? Are you in favor of defunding or letting the law go into effect and watching it collapse? What steps would you take to encourage more insurance competition in the state? What about returning Medicaid limits to minimum levels?
- Energy policy: When can we expect fracking to begin in Western Maryland? And what will you do with the renewable portfolio standard? Will you move to re-regulate Maryland’s electrical utilities? Can Martin O’Malley’s offshore wind scheme work? What about offshore oil drilling – is that an option for you? Will you maintain Maryland’s membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative?
- Education: Will Common Core be the law of the land in Maryland, or will you eschew Race to the Top funding? How about school choice, or money following the child regardless of school? How will you protect homeschooling? Instill more local control? What about promoting elected school boards in those counties still without them? Emphasis on vocational education? How do you message against the certain opposition of the teachers’ unions?
- Second Amendment: Will you work to repeal the so-called Firearms Safety Act? What about concealed carry, and making licenses easier to get? If the federal government gets too onerous, will you fight them? What’s your interpretation of the Second Amendment?
- War on Rural Maryland: Can we count on you to repeal the Septic Bill and tier mapping? Will nitrogen-removal systems still be required? Will the Hudson family be made whole by the state, since it was with the state’s assistance they were legally harassed? How will you assist the poultry industry in the state and keep them here? What about cleaning up behind the Conowingo Dam and fighting the mandated burden on rural counties, as well as the rain tax on urban ones?
- Role of Government: Where do you stand on a regulation moratorium, and would you veto new mandates passed through the General Assembly? Are there any agencies you’d work to abolish? What about divestiture of surplus state land? Is a consolidation of primary state government functions in Annapolis on your agenda? Can we count on you to repeal as many laws as you create? Where do you stand on public-private partnerships? Do you support citizen-based petition to referendum for new laws (as opposed to those passed by the General Assembly)? What about the right to recall elected officials?
- Job creation and transportation: We know you’ll lower the corporate tax rate – what about eliminating it entirely? What about reform of unemployment insurance? What other steps will you take to make it easier to do business in Maryland? As far as infrastructure goes, will you kill the Red Line and Purple Line in favor of more useful means for transporting goods, such as expanding the interstate network in Maryland and surrounding states? Will you hold the line on tolls? What about another Bay crossing – where would you put it? What non-tax code incentives would you offer for rural area job creation? What policies would you adopt from other states?
- Fiscal conservatism/taxation: Can Marylanders expect a flatter income tax system? How about eliminating it entirely as some states have done? Or would you prefer a sales tax decrease or elimination? Would you agree to a TABOR, or at least a budget utilizing those principles? Can we get per-capita spending closer to the national norm? And how will you deal with the outcry of the press, such as the old “tax cuts for the rich” saw?
- Intangibles: Positions on abortion, expansion of gambling and/or return to legislative control (as opposed to Constitutional amendment), protection for religious objections to gay marriage, your perception of the TEA Party and pro-liberty movement, and so forth. Mainly social issues.
Yes, that’s a hell of a lot. But somewhere, someone else is asking some of the same questions and if I’m going to make a decision I want it to be informed. And while I’d like to make these issue posts on about a weekly basis, that’s probably a quite aggressive timetable.
But I’m sure that a) people from the respective campaigns read my website, and b) they will bend over backwards for new media. (At least that’s what I’m counting on.) And it’s likely they haven’t even pondered some of these queries, so I don’t expect miracles – but I’ll take them anyhow.
Yet I’m sure that some high-dollar Beltway Republican consultant will tell their candidate that he’d be nuts to get into specifics this far out because all it would provide is fodder for the Democrats and the press (but I repeat myself) to harp upon as the campaign heats up. News flash: they will do that anyway, even if they have to make stuff up (e.g. “a fee is a tax.”) So get it out now and I’ll take those clowns on myself, even as I point out that it’s not like I don’t have a few allies in this fight.
Just let me know you have the balls to stand for something, okay?
A sideline of mine – besides the frequent discussions of Maryland politics I write – is discussing energy issues. I didn’t seek out that aspect of the universe to write on, but I find it fascinating and quite important at the same time.
Today was a monumental day in Congress for the wind industry – yes, wind blows every day but those who profit from collecting the energy created and converting it (albeit somewhat clumsily and inefficiently) to electricity had their day in Congress today. Their goal: maintaining their cherished production tax credit at a hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Yet a large group of conservative and pro-liberty organizations are urging Congress to dump this credit, with the Competitive Enterprise Institute a leading voice. They co-wrote a letter last month calling on Congress to dump the subsidy, and followed up with further guidance today from CEI’s Myron Ebell:
Congress should not renew the Wind Production Tax Credit for another year and thereby upset the planned phase-out that was passed just last year.
The wind energy lobbyists spend more time seeking handouts than in trying to make their product competitive. The tax credit amounts to the worst kind of cronyism, costing taxpayers billions, foisting mandates on states and driving up electricity rates for consumers and manufacturers.
Over the course of the last several years, efforts in both Maryland and Delaware to harness the wind have fizzled out, most notably the lockdown of the much-ballyhooed Bluewater Wind project. And while Maryland is attempting to jumpstart that market with a public subsidy effective this fiscal year, it’s questionable whether anyone will attempt to build the turbines, even with the set-aside put in place.
Unfortunately, while the wind blows for free, the places where it blows the best tend to be difficult locations for infrastructure. Moreover, as we all know, those hot, humid days during the summer when we could use the cooling breeze rarely have enough wind to blow a scrap of paper around, let alone turn a turbine. It’s one of many good points made by Dr. Robert J. Michaels, a professor of economics at Cal State – Fullerton and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Energy Research.
Surely some will counter with the fact that fossil fuel industries have their own set of tax benefits and these subsidies for wind energy are simply a matter of leveling the playing field. But consider the number of jobs in these fossil fuel industries everywhere in the process – everything from working at the point of extraction to transport to conversion into electricity. In many cases, these jobs are among the most lucrative in their respective fields despite the fact the raw material is relatively cheap compared to the cost of wind energy.
It’s also worth pointing out that the “market” for wind energy is a relatively artificial one thanks to those states which have a carveout for a renewable energy portfolio, including Maryland. Generally, since neither the cost-effectiveness nor the necessary infrastructure is in place, the laws simply serve as another form of taxation of already-beleaguered utility companies because non-compliance carries a monetary cost. On the other hand, no one is saying that any proportion of our electricity has to come from coal or natural gas nor is it necessary because the market price dictates the direction utilities prefer to go.
With any luck, the production tax credits will become a thing of the past at the end of the year. Like zombies, they were resurrected from the dead at the end of last year thanks to a Congressional deal but maybe this year their time will run out.
Since I spoke about ethanol Sunday, I found it quite funny that a free-market coalition of groups put out a letter dated today regarding the repeal of the Renewable Fuel Standard. I’ll start by quoting their release under the moniker of the Competitive Enterprise Institute:
The RFS is frequently criticized for its adverse impacts on food prices, wildlife habitat, and hunger-stricken nations, and potentially devastating impact on fuel prices. “These criticisms are valid and important,” said CEI Senior Fellow Marlo Lewis. “But even apart from those concerns, Congress should repeal the RFS because it conflicts with basic tenets of a free society. In a free society, no company should be forced to execute and assure the success of another company’s business plan.”
It’s an angle I considered in a roundabout way when I wrote about the benefits of scrapping the RFS on Sunday, obviously not knowing this letter was in the works. Interestingly enough, a similar broad coalition of groups objected a few weeks back when the Domestic Alternative Fuels Act of 2013 was proposed, a proposal I also wrote on.
Of course, we can complain all we want now because no proposal to scuttle the RFS will be going anywhere, particularly when Democrats generally favor more expensive “alternative” energy and farm-state Republicans won’t cross their key constituency, which is being made fat and happy by artificially high corn prices. Worth pointing out is that, had the economy grown as it was during the pre-Speaker Pelosi Bush years, we may be using enough gasoline that we could accommodate increased ethanol supplies without bumping into the “blend wall” as we threaten to do now. Even environmentalists have a problem with ethanol, although their solution is accelerating standards in other areas instead of properly dismissing them entirely.
So perhaps this is a situation where great minds think alike, but in the grand scheme of things we’re not going to see real solutions until the political climate in Washington changes and a cool front of common sense blows in.
Gasoline. It’s something all of us need, and if you’re reading this in Maryland last month you began paying roughly 3.5 cents more per gallon at each fillup thanks to the state expanding the sales tax to gasoline as part of a multi-year process for full adoption of our 6% sales tax to that product.
While that bad news applies to Maryland consumers, all of us may soon be seeing less bang for the buck if the EPA gets its way. They’re edging us closer and closer to widespread usage of E15 fuel, which may be a necessary method to comply with short-sighted federal law. The problem: a “blend wall” where the amount of ethanol mandated for use runs up to the limits created by actual consumption, which is down significantly from that which was predicted when the regulations were written several years ago when the economy was humming along.
Many longtime followers of my site know I use the American Petroleum Institute as a go-to resource when it comes to energy issues. Yes, they are an advocacy group but they advocate the tried-and-true solutions for our energy problems, advocating for the least-costly alternative of petroleum which, as a beneficial byproduct, is a great job creator to boot. So while the EPA believes it’s “flexible” on renewable fuel standards enacted as part of a 2005 law, API believes they’re quite inflexible. The only real change was in the category of cellulosic biofuels, which saw its mandate cut by more than half – quite handy when there’s only a negligible amount currently in production. (API has a handy guide to the pitfalls of the RFS here.)
Meanwhile ethanol apologists – like the group which lobbied for E15 in the first place – claim their product will create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil without making an impact on grocery prices, Yet their solution is more government mandates and subsidies. I find it quite telling that this group formed mere days after the election of Barack Obama, who was probably – and correctly – thought of as a person who would shower even more government largess onto the ethanol industry in his quest to wipe out the coal and oil industries.
Yet Congress can act, just as it did in making the mandates in the first place nearly a decade ago – a lifetime in the oil industry, given the boom in oil exploration and fracking over the last five years. So what would happen if the ethanol mandates were scrapped?
Obviously you would have a number of winners and losers. All those who invested in ethanol plants figuring that the government subsidies and mandates would have profit rolling their way – well, they would have the biggest “L” stamped on their forehead. Farmers may take a temporary hit as corn prices drop, but they would eventually stabilize; moreover, farmers who shunned soybeans or wheat for corn to be turned into fuel could go back to those other staple items.
Consumers would win in a number of ways. First of all, they’d get better quality gasoline that’s less expensive, which would both increase their mileage per gallon and amount of money remaining in their wallets. Secondly, the lowering of corn prices would benefit them at the grocery store, and not just in corn-based products because feed for poultry and livestock would be cheaper. And lastly, their small equipment would last longer because ethanol is poisonous to many small gasoline-powered motors.
And while the intention of these mandates was to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, new advances in exploration and extraction have placed the goal of North American energy self-sufficiency within reach. Nor is it necessarily in the form of gasoline, as companies with large automotive fleets are moving toward using natural gas as a motor fuel, building their own infrastructure along the way. (Yes, this can be done without a massive taxpayer subsidy or regulation.)
It just makes more sense to me to not grow our fuel, but our food. When you think of corn, you don’t think of a gas tank but instead think about that tasty ear cooked to perfection with some butter and pepper on it. Let’s get back to using corn for what the Good Lord meant it for, eating.
If it’s not bad enough that Maryland drivers will be suffering from the first of what now promises to be annual hikes in the state’s gasoline tax, due to a combination of adding gasoline to the palette of items subject to the state’s sales tax and eventual indexing of the existing gasoline tax to inflation, a pending federal bill may allow the addition of natural gas-based ethanol as an allowed blending agent, joining the corn-based ethanol that’s currently allowed to comprise up to 10% of most available gasoline.
H.R. 1959, the Domestic Alternative Fuels Act of 2013, was introduced as an effort to provide other options for attaining the renewable fuel standard already codified into law. But a coalition of groups, led by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, recently wrote a letter to Congress urging the bill be defeated, citing the idea that renewable fuel standards should be scrapped, not enhanced:
The undersigned organizations urge you to oppose H.R. 1959, the Domestic Alternative Fuels Act of 2013. The bill would allow ethanol derived from natural gas to count toward the mandatory blending targets established by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and the EPA’s implementing regulations.
We commend Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) and his co-sponsors for seeking to break the corn lobby’s legal monopoly on a significant and growing share of the U.S. motor fuel market. However, the solution is not to make the RFS more inclusive, so that more special interests profit at consumer expense, but to dismantle the program.
The other eleven groups signing with CEI represent a broad spectrum of conservative and free market entities: 60 Plus, American Commitment, Americans for Prosperity, American Energy Alliance, Club for Growth, Commonwealth Foundation, Freedom Action, FreedomWorks, Frontiers of Freedom, Let Freedom Ring, and the National Taxpayers Union.
On balance, the groups are correct in wishing the ethanol mandate be eliminated. Even with the abundant supplies of natural gas which weren’t in play just a few short years ago when the original RFS was cast in place, there is no need to supplement the fuel we use in our vehicles; in fact, eliminating the mandate would probably make those who own watercraft or items with small gasoline engines ecstatic since they’ll no longer have to search for ethanol-free fuel to maintain their equipment.
The EPA’s push toward allowing E15 fuel stems from the increasing amount of ethanol required to satisfy these artificially-induced mandates for usage running into a “blend wall” where it becomes physically impossible to limit the amount of ethanol in a gallon of fuel to just 10 percent and comply with the law. Writers of the RFS miscalculated the future demand for fuel, which is increasing more slowly than predicted due to a number of factors: more fuel-efficient cars and a sputtering economy most prominent among them.
Interestingly enough, Rep. Olson is also in favor of eliminating the mandates, but he obviously feels that’s politically impossible at this time:
The RFS’ singular focus on corn ethanol translates into higher food costs for working families, as well as higher feed costs for livestock producers. To be clear, my primary goal will always be the full repeal of the market distorting RFS. However, until then, we can take care of immediate problems by providing greater participation and competition under the program. Expanding the sources for ethanol will only benefit all Americans. I’m pleased this measure enjoys bipartisan and widespread support.
But this bill promises to align two key constituencies which aren’t always in the same room. It’s a point made by CEI Senior Fellow Marlo Lewis:
Enacting this bill would align the natural gas lobby with the corn lobby. Their common interest would be to increase the overall RFS blending target beyond 36 billion gallons, mandate the sale of E20 or even higher ethanol blends, and relax environmental criteria so that corn- and gas-based ethanol can fill the void created by non-existent advanced biofuels.
All this would do is create yet another group of hogs lining up at the federal cronyism trough, trying to grow their business at the expense of competition despite having an inferior product. You may not remember the gasoline price shock of 2008, but one outgrowth of it that I noted at the time was a video campaign dubbed Nozzlerage and the formation of a group called Citizens for Energy Freedom, a subgroup of another entity called the Center for Security Policy (CSP). Their solution was to give ethanol a permanent market by mandating cars sold in the United States be flexfuel vehicles. As I said back then:
Regardless of how little it supposedly costs to convert cars to flexfuel, the truth is that the option has been available for some time and the market has proven it to be a slow seller. Thus, the soon-to-be-created CSP subgroup (Citizens for Energy Freedom – ed.) is looking to lobby for the bill’s passage and force automakers into another mandate, just like CAFE standards, air bags, catalytic converters, and many other features that were foisted upon automakers by big government. Certainly the idea has some merit but by placing the initial meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, it’s a safe bet that ethanol created from corn will take center stage and we’ve already seen the impact ethanol mandates and subsidies have had on our food prices.
Taking food out of our mouths and dumping it into our gas tanks has always been a bad idea, particularly when there is a cost-effective and inedible solution already in place. CEI and its allies make a sound point, but it will be up to someone in Congress to introduce the bill to eliminate RFS mandates. Of course, we need a President who would sign such a common sense bill and right now common sense is in short supply around the Oval Office and probably will be until at least January, 2017.
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.
It’s one of the cheesiest anti-oil PR campaigns I’ve seen: a “promoted” twitter account called @TheOilyBird, a snarky oil company h8r. Enviros and greenies retweet @TheOilyBird’s oil industry bashing, without bothering to look at its source.
The source is an entity called Fuels America, which as Maley points out is a consortium of ethanol industry and Radical Green groups. They defend the renewable fuel standard (RFS) by noting:
But right now, the RFS is under attack. A series of misguided assertions seek to blame this forward-looking energy policy for a recent spike in the price of corn, one of the many crops used for renewable fuel production. Make no mistake: corn prices are going up because the United States is suffering the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, not because of the RFS. While this drought is certainly harming rural communities, dismantling or slowing down the RFS would cause even greater damage.
Ah yes, blame it on the weather. After four years of subpar yields, it’s natural that corn prices would be high. But the question is whether the ethanol mandate is bringing farmers to the decision to grow corn rather than soybeans or wheat, both of which also enjoy solid prices. If it weren’t for the artificial demand for corn, though, perhaps prices would be somewhat lower – there’s no doubt the demand for ethanol plays a part, although supplies could also be higher than they otherwise would be.
As it stands now, farmers are desperate enough for land to grow crops on that they are plowing under former golf courses, tearing down unneeded outbuildings, and otherwise maximizing their acreage for growing. Obviously a percentage of this activity is to get in on the bonanza of ethanol subsidies, which, if the EPA has its way, may even stretch the mixture to an E30 blend of 70% gasoline and 30% ethanol – a point where cars would have to be specifically engineered for the blend.
Yet ethanol is a less-efficient, more corrosive alternative to straight gasoline in its current configuration. Drivers fret about the loss of fuel efficiency and those who have small motors, particularly boaters, have become painfully aware of the hazards of E15 fuel in their engines. Many go out of their way to locate ethanol-free gasoline stations to do their refueling.
I would also contend that rural communities are suffering more harm from regulations which preclude growth in their areas – such as the anti-sprawl initiatives exemplified by PlanMaryland and our septic bill with its tier maps – then a drop in corn prices would provide. Since corn is also a significant staple in American diet as well as feed for millions of farm animals, a drop in the per-bushel price would eventually be reflected in less expensive trips to the grocery store.
If ethanol is good enough to stand on its own merits, one would think the ethanol filling stations would soon be setting up shop in locations where gasoline stations were being abandoned. But they’re not. So why should we be saddled with an inferior product just to make a small group of farmers happy?
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.