Newt Gingrich was right after all

I wrote a little bit about the 2012 contenders yesterday in a piece about 2016, but I’ve been seeing the evidence that Newt Gingrich’s thought and 2012 campaign plank that we could once again see gasoline at $2.50 a gallon (or less, as the recent photo above from my Missouri-based writer friend Melinda Musil demonstrates) has come true despite naysayers from just a short year or so ago. Yet despite experts who called the idea “absurd” and noted “the price of oil is set on a global market” and decreed “in the immediate term there is almost nothing you can do,” well, here we are. Musil reported yesterday her prices are now under $2 a gallon.

The reason prices are so much lower is pretty much what Gingrich proposed to do in the 2012 campaign: increased production. With fracking and other enhancements in technology allowing domestic output to increase, the benefits have been enormous. Considering that average prices going into the July 4 holiday hovered over $3.60 a gallon, the relief expressed by drivers may begin spilling over into the economy at-large. Now the average is about $2.54 a gallon, with this area’s prices relatively close to that point.

Over time, the benefits will be accruing to consumers – if an Eastern Shore driver goes 20,000 miles a year in a truck that gets 20 miles per gallon, spending $1 less a gallon for a year is equivalent to a $1,000 annual raise that’s tax free. On the other hand, this decline in prices is thwarting the state of Maryland’s scheme to take more out of our pockets by increasing the sales tax on gas, because as I noted a few days back their 8 cents per gallon projected revenue is sinking closer to a nickel. Luckily, the state government over the next four years will desperately try not to confiscate any more revenue from working folks like us thanks to the recent election, and this tailwind could help Governor-elect Hogan address the state’s structural deficit through a modest increase in economic activity.

It’s doubtful that our prices will stay quite this low, for oil at $60 a barrel means our extraction with its price point that’s a little bit higher isn’t sustainable in the long term. But there is the chance that more practice with these unconventional techniques could drive down production costs to a point where our producers could prosper at that price or even below – if we could match the Saudis’ lower extraction cost we could wipe out the OPEC cartel once and for all.

So enjoy these low prices while they last. Hopefully, this modest economic bump will kickstart other sectors and bring us prosperity despite the best efforts of some in Washington – you know, the ones who try to take credit for this energy boom despite having little to do with it.

The start of something good?

Last week, Mark Green at the Energy Tomorrow blog posted a critique of the proposed fracking regulations Maryland may adopt in the waning days of the O’Malley administration. In his piece, Green stressed that Maryland needed to adopt “sensible” restrictions but feared Maryland would go too far. It was echoed in the Washington Post story by John Wagner that Green cites.

But the money quote to me comes out of the Post:

“In the short term, as a practical matter, the industry will probably choose to frack in other states than Maryland where the standards are lower,” O’Malley said. But in the longer term, he said, “it could well be that responsible operations may well choose to come here.”

Or maybe not, which seems to have been the goal of O’Malley and Radical Green all along. It’s funny that they don’t seem to have the objections to wind turbines dotting the landscape despite their own health issues. Certainly no one studied them to death.

Being a representative of the energy industry, Green naturally argues that “sensible” regulations are similar to those already in place in states which already permit the practice. As he notes:

Hydraulic fracturing guidelines developed by industry – many of them incorporated into other states’ regulatory regimes – offer a sound approach proved by actual operations.

I can already hear the howling from Radical Green about the fox guarding the hen house, and so forth. But is it truly in the interest of industry to foul its own nest?

On the other hand, the success of fracking and other domestic exploration may create an interesting situation. Even back in October, when oil had declined to $90 a barrel from a June peak of nearly $115 a barrel, analysts were speculating on the effects the drop would have on the budgets of OPEC member nations. Now that oil in closing in on $60 a barrel, the economic effects on certain nations will be even more profound, and contrarian economic observers are already warning that the oil boom is rapidly turning into a bust with a ripple effect on our economy.

Even the revenue scheme by which Maryland would collect a sales tax on gasoline depended on gas prices staying somewhere over $3 a gallon. Assuming the price of gasoline stays at about $2.70 per gallon through the first of the year, the predicted 8-cent per-gallon rate will only be 5.4 cents. (The sales tax on gasoline is slated to increase to 2% on January 1.)

In any case, there is a price point at which non-traditional oil extraction such as fracking or extraction from tar sands – the impetus for the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline – becomes economically non-viable. I had always heard that number was $75 per barrel, which was a number we had consistently hovered above for the last half-decade. Now that we are under that number, the question of exploration in Maryland may be moot for the short-term, although the price of natural gas is only slightly below where it was this time last year so that play is still feasible.

Whether the decline in oil prices is real or a manipulation of the market by a Saudi-led OPEC which is playing chicken with prices to try and restore its bargaining position by outlasting domestic producers, it may be yet another missed opportunity for Maryland as it could have cashed in during a difficult recession and recovery if not for an administration which believed the scare tactics and not what they saw with their own eyes as neighboring Pennsylvania thrived.

A lack of standards

In 2007, Congress passed (and President Bush regrettably signed) a bill which was, at the time, a sweeping reform of energy policy. As part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the EPA was supposed to regulate the Renewable Fuel Standard on an annual basis, with the eventual goal of supplying 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022 – the 2014 standard was set at 18.15 billion gallons (page 31 here.) By the way, this is the same bill that did away with incandescent light bulbs.

Unfortunately, for the second straight year the EPA is late with its update and last month they decided to take a pass altogether on 2014. Mark Green at the Energy Tomorrow blog writes on this from the petroleum industry perspective, while the ethanol industry took the decision as news that the EPA was staving off a possible reduction in the RFS.

We all know hindsight is 20/20 but it should be noted that, at the time the EISA was written, the conventional wisdom was in the “peak oil” camp, reckoning that American production was in a terminal decline. Yet we’ve seen a renaissance in the domestic energy industry over the last half-decade despite government’s best attempts at keeping the genie in the bottle. So the question really should be asked: is the Renewable Fuel Standard worth keeping in this new energy era, or should the market be allowed to function more freely?

It goes to show just how well the government predicts activity sometimes. They assumed that the technology behind creating biofuels from agricultural waste would supplant the need for corn-based ethanol in time to maintain the amount required and also figured on gasoline usage continuing to increase. Wrong on both counts; instead, we are perhaps in a better position to invest in natural gas technology for commercial trucks as some fleet owners already have – although long-haul truckers remain skeptical based on better diesel engine fuel economy, which ironically came from government fiat - than to continue down an ethanol-based path.

But the larger benefit from removing ethanol-based standards would accrue to consumers, as corn prices would decline to a more realistic value. Obviously the initial plummet in the corn futures market would lead to farmers planting more acreage for other crops such as soybeans or wheat as well as maintaining virgin prairie or placing marginal farmland, such as thousands of acres previously reserved for conservation easements, back out of service.

Poultry growers in this region would love to see a drop in the price of corn as well, as it would improve their bottom line and slowly work its way into the overall food market by decreasing the price consumers pay for chicken.

I believe it’s time for Congress to address this issue by repealing the RFS. Unfortunately, it would take a lot to prevail on many of the majority Republicans in the Senate because they come from the major corn-growing states in the Midwest and agricultural subsidies of any sort are portrayed as vital to maintain the health of rural America. Yet the corn market would only be destabilized for a short time; once the roughly 30% share of the crop used to create ethanol (over 4.6 billion bushels) is absorbed by the simple method of planting a different crop or leaving marginal land fallow, the prices will rise again.

Until the common sense of not processing a vital edible product into fuel for transport prevails, though, we will likely be stuck with this ridiculous standard. Corn is far better on the cob than in the tank, and it’s high time the EPA is stripped of this market-bending authority.

A long, cold winter

I’ve referred to this writer recently, but energy maven Marita Noon had a piece at NetRightDaily today talking about the difficulties customers in the Northeast may have this winter with electricity. It got me to thinking about the local situation, as we had a rough winter last year and indications are we’ll have more of the same this year.

While the Eastern Shore of Maryland is situated in a slightly better place for solar electricity than the Northeast, the reality is that very little of our electricity comes from renewable sources. Instead, the two closest power plants in the Delmarva Power region where we live are in Vienna, Maryland and Millsboro, Delaware. Both of those plants were once owned by Delmarva Power, but were sold in 2001 to NRG. According to NRG, the Vienna plant is a 167 MW oil-burning plant while Indian River in Millsboro uses coal to create 410 MW (and has a 16 MW oil-burning unit as well.) Another plant under construction in Dover, owned by Calpine, will add 309 MW of natural gas-fired capacity once it comes online beginning next year. Calpine also owns a number of small, locally-based “just in case” plants in the region as well – two of these oil-burning facilities are in Crisfield, Maryland and Tasley, Virginia.

The other regional power supplier, Choptank Electric Cooperative, produces about 2/5 of its supply from plants in Cecil County, Maryland and Virginia with the remaining electricity being purchased from various regional suppliers.

Infrastructure is also a concern. Several years ago there were plans to create the Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway, a transmission line which would extend from Virginia to Delaware, connecting the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant and others in that region with the aforementioned Vienna and Indian River plants. But those plans were scrapped a few years ago due to slowing demand, which is unfortunate because our transmission otherwise comes exclusively from the north through Delaware.

In order to create good jobs, we need reliable sources of energy. Unfortunately, regulations aren’t on the side of plants like Vienna or Indian River so it may be time to think about encouraging investment in another natural gas-based power plant on Delmarva, with the requisite infrastructure to ensure supply. According to Calpine, the Dover site can expand to double its capacity but that would only partially replace the Indian River plant if it is forced offline. Realistically, though, the new power plant would probably be best sited in Delaware as it’s closer to the main body of pipeline infrastructure for natural gas.

But the new power plant is good news for the region, particularly in light of the issues Noon points out in her piece on the Northeast. With thousands of consumers using electricity to heat their homes in one way or another – either directly through baseboard heating or with a furnace and blower or pump – reliability is key. And when solar panels are buried in snow or wind turbines are frozen in place, they’re not much use.

A sea change in Maryland too?

In the midst of what’s good news about energy production in America – despite the headwinds created by an administration that believes global warming is a large problem while spending millions to prop up failing green energy companies – the question can be asked whether Maryland has achieved its share. I want to quote writer Mark Green from the Energy Tomorrow blog, who writes that based on Energy Information Administration data that:

This is a snapshot of America’s energy revolution – the fundamental shift from energy scarcity to abundance that would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago. The shift is the result of surging oil and natural gas production using advanced hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, harnessing oil and gas reserves in shale and other tight-rock formations. Safe, responsible energy development has made the United States the world’s No. 1 natural gas producer, and the U.S. could become the world’s top producer of crude oil related liquids before the year is out.

Larry Hogan has acknowledged that western Maryland has an “enormous” amount of natural gas and that he favors an “all of the above” energy policy. On the other hand, Anthony Brown is studying the issue to death. At the other end of the state and scale, Brown backs his boss’s offshore wind boondoggle while Hogan mentions that “proponents (of wind power) rarely mention the actual costs which include billions in state and federal subsidies.” In a separate statement, he also decries the potential for offshore wind’s “crony capitalism” under a Brown administration.

You know, there’s no question that the key issue in this gubernatorial race is the economy. Maryland is a state lagging behind its peers, and more and more people speak about pulling up stakes and relocating somewhere else: Delaware, Florida, Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee – name a state south of the Mason-Dixon Line and it’s likely someone you knew in Maryland moved there.

But one piece of the puzzle is energy, and those who toil in the oil and gas industry understand what the potential is. In his piece, Green closes by quoting American Petroleum Institute president and CEO Jack Gerard:

We need leaders who reject the outdated political ideology of the professional environmental fringe and the political dilettantes who advance the irresponsible and unrealistic “off fossil fuel” agenda. Because if we get our energy policy right today, we can be the generation that erases what for decades has been our country’s most potent and intractable economic vulnerability: dependence on energy resources from less stable regions and countries hostile to our goals, ideals and way of life.

Writer Rob Port at the Say Anything Blog also asks the pertinent question, and the answer on a state level can be found in Maryland.

I look at it this way. There was a governor and a majority in the General Assembly who were willing to risk over a billion dollars in ratepayer money on something which studies suggested might work but hadn’t been tried in Maryland before, offshore wind. Conversely, given the success of the Marcellus Shale formation in several surrounding states (most notably Pennsylvania), why not encourage the exploration of several other regions in the state which share many of the same characteristics? The worst that can happen is that we find these areas aren’t worthwhile for natural gas with current technology, but the rapidly evolving science of energy extraction means studies done even as recently as a few years ago may be rendered worthless.

Given the correct conditions for marketable extraction of coal and natural gas and an aggressive expansion of power plant capacity which uses those resources, it should be a goal to make Maryland self-sufficient in electricity by 2030. I don’t think offshore wind will get us there, but extracting those resources we have gives us a shot, and provides good-paying jobs for Maryland families who need them.

Another prediction of job creation

In the post I recently did about wind power, I pointed out that beginning in 2017 Maryland electric ratepayers will begin a 20-year process of chipping in $1.7 billion in subsidies to the developer of an offshore wind farm off the Ocean City or Assateague coast. Yet a new study claims that Maryland could reap far greater economic benefits over the next two decades if offshore drilling is allowed in the region, with even larger payoffs for Virginia and the Carolinas by virtue of their longer coastlines. Nearly as important are the thousands of jobs which could be created – something wind energy producers can’t match.

There’s no doubt that these rosy scenarios presented by Dr. Timothy J. Considine of the University of Wyoming and the Interstate Policy Alliance (which includes the Maryland Public Policy Institute) were made up to encourage the loosening of restrictions on offshore drilling. Yet they also take into account the cost of environmental factors in a reasonable way, which balances the picture. It turns out that Maryland is one of the better cost/benefit performers of the six states (Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) included in the study.

It also goes without saying that our Senate representatives are foolishly dead-set against the idea, signing onto an August letter which claimed detrimental effects on tourism in the highly unlikely event of an oil spill. (A few Maryland House members signed a similar letter.) While tourism is a good thing and we’d like to encourage more of it, the value which could be added to our economy from oil and natural gas is far greater.

At this early stage, the next move seems to be simply testing to update decades-old mapping which suggests there’s a potential for millions of barrels of oil offshore. Any actual drilling is probably years and several court battles away, as it’s almost a guarantee that Radical Green will throw the legal kitchen sink at any attempt to drill for oil in the Atlantic. May I kindly suggest they go pound sand.

But if they insist on building wind turbines offshore, it should be noted that oil rigs and wind turbines can coexist and once the oil is tapped out the platforms can be put to good use. These uses don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but in terms of current economics it’s difficult to match the high subsidies required to get companies to even consider offshore wind when compared to the clamor of energy producers to see just what’s underneath all that Atlantic coastline. If Larry Hogan really wants the “all of the above” energy approach, he should embrace the prospect of offshore oil exploration.

Reliable bogeymen

You know the other side has nothing in their bag of ideas when you see this recycled old chestnut of an appeal for cash:

This from the side with a President who regularly finds millionaires willing to fork over big bucks to get their slice of the government pie.

But I presume these guys are counting the Americans for Prosperity as part of the “hundreds of millions of dollars,” which is funny because while reports attempt to spin the news that the Koch brothers are raising up to $290 million to spend, it’s not like Democratic backers like Tom Steyer and the venerable George Soros are standing still.

Yet what do all these participants stand for? In the case of Soros, he’s donated millions over the years to reliably left-wing causes and opined after the 2010 election wipeout that Barack Obama didn’t fight hard enough for cherished progressive causes. Instead:

While Soros’s comment gave some attendees the impression that he’d cheer a primary challenge to the president, the point, sources say, was different. Rather, it is time to shuffle funds into a progressive infrastructure that will take on the tasks that the president can’t or won’t take on.

“People are determined to help build a progressive infrastructure and make sure it is there not just in the months ahead but one that will last in the long term,” said Anna Burger, the retired treasury secretary of SEIU. “Instead of being pushed over by this election it has empowered people to stand up in a bigger way.”

“There was frustration,” said one Democratic operative who attended the meetings. The main concern was about messaging. I think they are frustrated that the president isn’t being more direct. But I did not get the sense that anyone’s commitment to the progressive movement was wavering… The general consensus is that support has to move beyond being about one person and more about a movement. I don’t know if we’ve moved beyond there.”

One of those “movement” ventures is an outside-government arm to match conservatives in the 2012 elections. For several weeks, discussions have been led by Media Matters for America founder David Brock about the need to create a group that will run advertisements, conduct opposition research and perform rapid response functions. (Emphasis mine.)

As an example of this concept, just look at the movement to increase the minimum wage. I don’t think the SEIU is doing this by themselves.

In Steyer’s case, he’s out pushing for the extinction of fossil fuels, despite being a major benefactor from them over the years. (This would be a fun debate to watch.) Imagine the increase in costs and decrease in living standards a wholesale overnight embrace of renewables would cause. Until we can make the sun shine and the wind blow steadily 24 hours a day, we have a problem. (In terms of naturally occurring energy gathering, it would seem hydroelectric would be the best choice, but that’s also climate-dependent: a drought would dry up supply.)

So consider what the Koch brothers have helped to create: the Cato Institute, a libertarian, small-government think tank and Americans for Prosperity (who would be against prosperity?) They also built up the family business and became billionaires in the process – isn’t that the American Dream writ large? (They also support other causes, as this tongue-in-cheek post notes.)

If the Democrats have to use the Koch brothers – who built a successful life for themselves with a minimum of government assistance and would like others to follow in their footsteps – as an example of evil because they support Republicans, we know they have nothing.

Border security, VA among chief concerns at Harris Salisbury townhall

It was a fairly packed house at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 194 in Salisbury as Congressman Andy Harris held the second of four proposed town hall meetings in the district. After speaking in Easton on Wednesday, many of those same topics came up last night.

But the first order of business was recognition. After pointing out that unemployment among veterans was higher than the average – “I can’t figure that out,” Harris said – Andy presented a Congressional Citation to Chris Eccleston, who operates Delmarva Veteran Builders, a local construction firm which specializes in giving veterans job opportunities upon return to civilian life.

Once that presentation was out of the way, Harris introduced his “three things of great concern.”

As opposed to past negativity about the situation, Andy considered the declining deficit as a piece of good news, noting that federal spending had been fairly level for the last three years. The annual deficit is down $550 billion from its peak, although the aim of the House is to eventually bring the budget back to balance. Andy, however, conceded that the “House’s goal is to balance the budget in ten years.” So while it was still important, Andy wasn’t as concerned about this as he was the following three.

He also said there was “good news on the energy side,” pointing out we now produce more oil than we import and should be the leading world producer of both oil and natural gas by year’s end. The oil production was helped by technology which allowed what he called secondary and tertiary production from existing wells, as opposed to the primary production from new drilling.

On the other hand, Harris believed that, “in terms of immigration, the system is broken.”

“The border is just not being enforced,” he added, noting that Texas Governor Rick Perry has called out his state’s National Guard to assist with border security. In legislation recently passed by the House, added Harris, funding was included for governors who, like Perry, decide to call up their National Guard to address the situation.

“We can’t afford to have a border that’s not secure,” explained Harris.

The news was equally troubling on the foreign policy front. “The world is more dangerous now than it was six years ago (before Obama took office),” said Harris. It wasn’t just the Middle East, either – Andy touched upon the Chinese carriers now patrolling the South China Sea, well outside their territorial waters.

And while we were reaping the effects of our decrease in defense spending, Andy continued, we were also suffering from a lack of trust. Our allies could now doubt our sincerity based on recent actions.

After expressing his main concerns, Andy took questions from the audience. As my editorial license, I’m going to cluster them into areas of concern – on top of the list was our most recent crisis.

Immigration. Many of the questions dealt with various aspects and concerns from those attending about the situation on our southern border and the resettlement of “unaccompanied children.”

Much of the problem could be traced to the passage of a 2008 bill intended to counter human trafficking. Andy noted that the law as written provided the assumption that children from certain Central American countries were being brought for the sex trade, which was a problem at the time. It was estimated that perhaps 2,000 children a year would be affected, with the idea being that these children would get a hearing to ascertain their status.

Unfortunately, the crush of those claiming status under this law and the DACA order signed by Barack Obama in 2012 means that the waiting period for these hearings is anywhere from 18-60 months – and only 46% of those called show up, Andy said. One third of them are “granted status,” he added.

“We should close the loophole,” said Harris. “I don’t see how you get out of the problem without changing the law.” We also needed more judges on a temporary basis to expedite the hearing schedule.

A solution the House could offer to rescind Obama’s order would be that of defunding the executive action, for which there was a bill. And while some were pessimistic about such action given the Senate, Harris stated that the Senate could agree to “a compromise deal over a much larger package.” My concern would be what we would have to trade away.

Andy also pointed out that the resettlement of these children was more or less being done without telling local officials, noting when the Westminster facility was being considered the word came down late on a Thursday afternoon in a week the House wasn’t in session on Friday. It eventually led to the question about those being placed in Maryland.

When asked how many were in the First District, Harris conceded he had “no idea…nobody’s telling us.”  But he continued by saying, “your school system will be affected,” adding that many of these children can’t read or write in Spanish, let alone English.

And the fact that these children aren’t necessarily being screened, vaccinated, or quarantined if necessary was also troubling to Harris. “The CDC is cognizant of it,” said Harris, who had spoken himself with the CDC head. Of course, the children are but a small portion of those crossing – perhaps 10 percent, said Harris.

“The real solution is you have to secure the American border,” concluded Harris. Rapid hearing and swift repatriation would send the message to parents in the host countries that it’s not worth the expense and risk to send children northward to America.

The VA situation. Given that the town hall meeting was being held in a VFW hall, there were concerns aplenty about the state of the Veterans Administration and its health care.

As part of a VA reform bill which recently passed and the VA has 90 days to implement, veterans who live over 40 miles from a VA facility are supposed to have the option of a private physician to address their needs. But Harris pointed out there was some interpretation involved based on whether the VA would extend that standard to an appropriate facility for the type of care needed – for example, something only handled in Baltimore. Harris hoped the interpretation would allow veterans on the Lower Shore to use closer local facilities, for which our local regional medical center could be a substitute provider, rather than make them travel to Baltimore because there was a VA clinic inside the 40-mile range but it couldn’t address the need. “They regulate, and we have to watch them,” said Andy.

The ultimate goal was “to make the VA system compete,” said Harris.

Entitlements. On a related note, one questioner asked about protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Andy believed that “you can’t change the law retroactively,” meaning that the status quo should prevail for those 55 and older. On the other hand, those in the younger generation “don’t expect all of it,” so the time was now to begin the discussion on preserving what benefits we can. The question was no longer if we got to zero in Social Security and Medicare, but when – Social Security tax receipts peaked two years ago and were now slowly declining . “We know the figures,” added Andy.

The system is “not sustainable…shame on us” in Congress for not addressing it.

Foreign policy. There were a couple questions which dealt with this topic, one on Ukraine and one on defunding Hamas.

Regarding Ukraine, one piece of “bad news” which could affect us locally was Russia’s decision to halt chicken imports from America. Their preference for dark meat nicely complemented our love of white meat, so while it wasn’t a large market it was an important one.

But in the geopolitical sense, Harris was relatively blunt. “We let it all go too far (and) should have put a stop to this in Crimea.” Andy pointed out that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the Budapest Memorandum, which we were a party to along with Great Britain, Russia, and Ukraine. As expected, Russia violated its end of the deal, but Harris noted “I don’t know where it ends.”

As for defunding Hamas, the House did so in its FY2015 budget. In it is a provision that states if Hamas is included in a Palestinian Authority government, we would withhold funding from them.

Andy added that he was “disappointed” in the administration’s lack of Israel support, and blasted Hamas for “purposefully aiming (their rockets) into civilian areas – that’s terrorism.” He added, “The war was started by Hamas…Israel has to end it.”

Impeachment/lawsuit vs. Obama. It actually started as a comment from the audience while Harris was explaining his answer to the immigration issue and Westminster situation.

“I think Obama is an enemy of the country,” it was said. And when Andy pointed out he was duly elected as President, stating, “nobody is claiming (Obama) wasn’t elected fair and square,” the audible murmur in the audience indicated otherwise.

But Andy believed suing Obama over his lack of adherence to the Constitution was the best choice. “Let the Supreme Court decide,” he said, as the proper procedure for changing law was supposed to lead through Congress. He would not vote for impeachment, but would rather the lawsuit run its course. I don’t think that was the popular sentiment of those assembled.

Term limits. This was actually the first question out of the chute, and Andy was clear about the questioner’s desire to see them enacted: “I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Harris. He bemoaned the lack of co-sponsors to a Joint Resolution he introduced last year holding both Senators and members of Congress to 12-year limits. “Part of the problem is that people view it as a lifetime job,” said Andy. Most agree term limits are necessary, so Andy held out hope that the 2014 campaign will bring out a new “Contract With America” promising a vote on the issue.

Common Core: It was actually asked as an awareness question regarding the new AP history framework, to which Harris could only promise to “look into this.” But there was language being considered for the appropriations bills which stated the federal government couldn’t provide incentives to adopt Common Core, as they did for Race to the Top federal funding.

Transportation/energy. Answering a question about bringing light rail to this area, Harris opined it was “some of the least efficient ways to transport people.”  He preferred a surface transportation system, such as busses, because they’re more flexible – if the development doesn’t follow the rail system, there’s no chance of adjusting it to suit.

On the related subject of energy, Harris believed it was easier to produce fossil fuels while researching the next generation of energy harnessing, such as fusion or hydrogen cells. At this point, “fossil fuels are the coin of the realm,” Harris said.

Maximizing our resources also provides us an opportunity to counter Russia’s “ability to use energy for bad ends.” He also warned that Canada would either send its crude to us through the Keystone XL pipeline or ship it to China.

Manufacturing. Finally, we’ll get to the question I asked about making things in Maryland and America.

Andy began his answer by referring to the practice of tax inversion, which has made news lately. He blamed our “horrendous” corporate tax rates for being an incentive for companies to stray offshore, or even just across the border to Canada (which has a 15% corporate tax rate compared to our 35%.) “We live in a global environment,” said Andy, so the obvious solution was to cut our corporate tax rates.

Rather, Washington was thinking about trying to make the practice more difficult. Harris feared it would encourage more inversions.

Other steps to getting things made in America were to continue promoting cheap energy – as methane is the basis for many plastic products, having an abundant supply would be crucial in that area of production. We could also work on scrapping some of the over-regulation plaguing our job creators.

After the hourlong forum, Andy stayed around for more questions and answers. I thought the give-and-take was excellent, and it’s a shame more local media wasn’t there.

The bad news for good performance

If you go to the gas pump, you’ve probably noticed the little sign that says the blend is “10% ethanol.” For several years, the EPA has mandated a certain amount of ethanol be used to slake America’s thirst for gasoline, with a 10% blend of ethanol being just enough to cover the mandate. Unfortunately, with less gasoline being necessary to meet demand thanks to both a stagnant economy and more fuel-efficient cars, the mandated amount of ethanol isn’t being used anymore. I noted the other day that the oil companies were calling on the EPA to scrap the proposed mandate increase this year.

When I wrote that I wasn’t aware that a movement is out there to not just stop at E-15 but go all the way to E-30. Oddly enough, I saw a piece from Rick Weiland, who I referred to in my dark money post, which brought it to my attention. (Damn, that dude has made it on here twice in one week. After he loses that race, he’ll probably move to Maryland and run with his newfound name recognition here.) So I did a quick bit of research and found there is a movement out there which believes E-30 is actually the optimum amount of ethanol to take best advantage of its attributes. Weiland is obviously driving a vehicle tuned to that specification and there are actual service stations which have the blend in his region – in both cases, the average motorist isn’t usually going to have that condition. A check of this site revealed no such stations around Delmarva, so it wouldn’t do us much good.

Needless to say, what the market won’t do government will force. So Senate Democrats are pushing the EPA to increase the mandate, meaning that they’ll artificially create a market for higher ethanol blends. (Flex-fuel cars are supposed to be able to handle E-15, but they’ve never been a popular option because they’re not as fuel-efficient running an E-15 blend. It’s telling that you see a lot of government cars with that option, but not a lot of private cars.)

But let’s say the mandated number of gallons increases. The scarcity will be in the E-10 or straight gasoline which smaller motors need to run properly; in addition, the cost of anything which consumes or has corn as an ingredient will rise. It’s why so many different groups advocated for a smaller ethanol mandate.

If we really wanted to do something to use less gasoline, it makes more sense to me to impose part of the Pickens Plan. Now I don’t think wind power is the way to go because it’s not as reliable as fossil fuels, but I think running fleets on natural gas is a fairly good idea for the reasons they state. To me, using food as fuel for automobiles doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – and yes, I know Brazil uses sugar cane for their ethanol. Brazil can use all the sugar cane it wants.

But I look closer to home, and our chicken farmers want their feed to be as inexpensive as possible. Corn growers already have plenty of mouths to feed, so they really don’t need to fill our gas tanks, too.

The quest for energy security – and sanity

It’s been awhile since I wrote about the energy industry but things are always happening there and I decided to take a peek because of some items I’ve spied in daily updates I receive from the American Petroleum Institute. I like to know what’s going on in important growth industries which profoundly affect our daily lives.

As one might expect, API CEO Jack Gerard is a leading spokesperson against what he calls Barack Obama’s “irrational” energy policy. It makes sense when you consider that the United States is now the world’s leading producer of both natural gas and oil, thanks in large part to recent advancements in fracking technology which have revitalized the once-moribund American energy industry. Speaking before an audience in New Orleans, Gerard noted:

The choice before us is whether we pursue an American future of energy abundance, self-sufficiency and global leadership or take a step back to the era of American energy scarcity, dependence and economic uncertainty.

It is that simple.

There’s a clear benefit to having the abundant resources we do. I was only nine years old when the first oil crisis hit in 1973, but I remember the long gas lines and jump in prices. If you consider the long-term effects in policy and marketing, such as the adoption of fuel economy standards and the push toward smaller cars, ask yourself what may have happened if we hadn’t become so dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Would we have had the resulting mid-1970s recession?

Obviously we have recessionary conditions now in spite of the current oil boom, but there’s a valid argument that opening up the spigots (so to speak) and allowing more extraction would push the economy into more consistent growth.

Another example of an irrational energy policy is our continued ethanol mandate, about which API is asking for another cutout of a mandated increase. The EPA decided not to change the allotment for this year, but needs to finalize the rule.

To me, there are two telling facts about this story: one is that API has given up on legislative relief from Congress and appealed directly to the EPA, which speaks volumes about the transition of our supposedly limited government into a fiefdom unto itself.

The second is the sheer volume of interests on the side of eliminating the mandates entirely – everyone from motorcyclists who complain about ethanol’s deleterious effects on their engines (as is the case for other small engines from boating to lawn equipment) to the poultry producers who have seen corn prices artificially propped up due to the amount of corn necessary for creating ethanol and even environmental groups who fret that the corn-based product is actually worse for the environment. Obviously the corn growers love the price support, though, and farmers have their own determined lobbyists who would love to see an even higher ethanol blend called E-15 allowed.

API and other ethanol opponents are hinging their future hopes on a more business-friendly Congress in the next term, though.

Irrational energy policy on the state level may occur after this fall in Colorado, a state which has taken advantage of the energy boom but may fall prey to the scare tactics environmentalists use to portray fracking in a negative light. There Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, sees his state’s energy success being threatened by a petition drive to place further restrictions on fracking on their November ballot. Hickenlooper is quoted in Bloomberg as pointing out, “(t)hese measures risk thousands and thousands of jobs and billions in investment and hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax revenue.”

I found this interesting because the proposed restrictions would prohibit drilling within 2,000 feet of structures, a change which energy companies complain would “effectively ban” fracking in the state. Their current restriction is 500 feet.

Now something which came out the other day to little fanfare was a draft report outlining some of Maryland’s proposed fracking regulations. The original recommendation, based on other states’ best practices by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Appalachian Laboratory, was for a 500-foot setback from wells. That guidance was expanded by the Department of Natural Resources and Maryland Department of the Environment to – you guessed it – 2,000 feet. (Page 18-20 here shows the recommended DNR/MDE changes.) In short, these regulations are intended to “effectively ban” fracking in Maryland to the detriment of not just our far western counties, but any of the regions of the state (including the Eastern Shore) that have shale deposits underneath. Talk about an “irrational” energy policy!

So here’s the deal: Maryland wants to depend more and more on methods of generating electricity which lack reliability and increase cost to consumers. Yes, that’s sounds like “smart, green, and growing” to me – not too bright, costing more green, and growing the desire of businesses to leave the state to find a place where energy exploration and extraction is encouraged and rates therefore are cheaper.

I know the Hogan administration would want a “balanced approach” to energy in the state, but I would have to hope part of that balance is returning to the best practices suggested by UMCES and not the onerous restrictions which would effectively ban fracking in the state.

AC Week in review – July 20, 2014

July 20, 2014 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items, Inside the Beltway, National politics, Politics · Comments Off 

It was a varied palette of items written about on my American Certified blog, The Sausage Grinder. Maybe it was a little more like scrapple. Regardless, I made several contributions to the discourse.

For most of the spring and summer, I’ve been following a sort of obscure Commerce Department case regarding allegations of Korean dumping of a processed steel piping product called Oil Country Tubular Goods – it’s strange that Korea is an OCTG producer when it has little oil. They made a decision favoring American steelworkers, which got positive reaction from a variety of interests.

One of those I quoted in the Commerce piece was the leader of the steelworkers’ union. His fellows at the United Auto Workers got an unexpected surprise from Volkswagen, which let the UAW in the back door despite workers at the Chattanooga plant voting against the UAW in February.

The concept of economic patriotism was brought out last week in a letter from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who pressed Congress to do something about the practice of tax inversion, where companies transfer assets overseas to take advantage of lower tax rates. While I didn’t bring up the argument in my piece, locally it’s just like the practice of stores selling big-ticket items locating just across the Delaware line so they can advertise their “no sales tax” prices and hope to increase volume accordingly.

Finally, I restated the obvious: Obamacare rates will go up in 2015. In a government takeover of the health insurance industry, did you really expect otherwise?

As always, I’m working on new stuff for next week, with other stories to follow.

AC Week in review: June 8, 2014

June 8, 2014 · Posted in Business and industry, Education, National politics, Politics · Comments Off 

Wouldn’t you know it: I begin a series only to bump it in week 2 because of MDGOP debate coverage. So this will truly be two weeks in review, but I’m sure you really don’t mind.

I begin by asking the question: can America keep making things? I found an interesting perspective on the question and added my own thoughts. But I also found that workers, STEM-based or not, should be flexible and highly-trained. (And while it doesn’t pertain directly to AC, I was pleased that one of our gubernatorial candidates has the same line of thinking.)

In order for our manufacturing economy to succeed, though, we need to have others around the world play fair. Unfortunately, not only China has been caught cheating on trade, with them and other countries threatening up to 500,000 steel jobs, but right here at home one group of American manufacturers is concerned that federal regulators unfairly have them in their crosshairs as well.

Longtime readers know as well that I’m excited about America’s ongoing energy boom, and in this case I look at how manufacturing can benefit, with a little help from regulators. And while the EPA is trying to do away with the coal industry through onerous regulations, Congress on the other hand is trying to rein in that body run amok with accountability and transparency.

I’m sure in the next couple days – since the unemployment rate is always released on a Friday, for weekend analysis – we will get spin on it, but this is another pre-launch piece I wrote last month on May’s unemployment numbers.

*********

On the first Friday of this month, analysts cheered the new low unemployment number of 6.3 percent, a low not seen in nearly six years. Moreover, the economy added 288,000 jobs – although that news was tempered by a labor force participation drop of more than 800,000 workers.

Yet out of those 288,000 jobs, just 12,000 were added in the manufacturing sector. That was “surprisingly weak,” according to Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) president Scott Paul. The AAM, an advocacy group backed mainly by the United Steelworkers union, contends that 5.8 million jobs could eventually be created by stopping currency manipulation by China, citing a recent Economic Policy Institute report which called the practice the “primary cause” of our trade deficit.

On a similar front, economist Chad Mowbray, who writes for the Shopfloor blog for the National Association of Manufacturers, detailed a number of “nagging challenges” for American manufacturers, leading off with the weak 0.1% first quarter GDP growth announced last week. (Editor’s note: that number has since been revised to a negative 1 percent growth.) Mowbray added that high marginal tax rates and uncertainty about health care costs could be factoring into the slow market growth.

In all these cases, policymakers in Washington are at loggerheads on how to proceed. A bill to deal with the currency manipulation was introduced last year and has bipartisan support, but mainly from Democrats. Unfortunately, that side seems to be placing more time and effort into trying to increase the minimum wage, which is a political nonstarter and is thought by many, including the nonpartisan CBO, to be a job killer. Republicans seem to be content with introducing bills to tweak around the edges on both tax reform and health care, but know there’s little chance of them advancing through the Senate, particularly six months before the midterm elections.

The situation, then, remains a challenging one. If, as some analysts have cited, the weather played a factor in slow economic growth, that excuse will dissipate in the summer sun. The question of whether the May jobs report was a mirage or portends better things is important, but there’s little doubt that if the manufacturing sector lags behind any recovery it will impede our progress going forward.

*********

It’s been a busy week, but I’ll keep monitoring the manufacturing market.

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