Is the answer blowin’ in the wind?

Of late I’ve heard a lot of talk about energy in various forms and how they will be affecting this Eastern Shore of ours. While I write mainly on political items, longtime readers know I have an interest in energy-related issues as well.

So if you read social media, you’ll find that one thing I enjoy doing is setting those who inhabit the left side of the political aisle straight on the reality of the situation – particularly when it comes to energy. I’m going to borrow something as not letting good writing go to waste and then build from that, since there are other facets I’d like to explore, too.

This was something I wrote to Congressional candidate Allison Galbraith – say what you will about her politics, she is well-engaged on social media. Galbraith recently linked a story from WMDT about a proposed offshore wind study, to which I most recently responded:

You’re making a giant leap of faith that we as mankind can slow down sea level rise. As for having houses underwater, that’s a risk one takes for having waterfront property – just like those who build along a hurricane-prone coastline.

My point is that, based on their merits as far as reliability goes, wind and solar are not ready for usage on a large scale. If one wants to invest their money in solar panels for their house or a windmill out back, great – have at it. (Personally, I don’t think these sources should be mandated, but the issue is properly a state-level issue and in our case that’s where it was determined – my beef is with Annapolis, not Washington. I don’t like ethanol subsidies either and that was a different story, dictated from on high.) But the problems come in being tied to the overall electrical grid, which is already a balancing act due to the vagaries of weather and usage.

If some smart entrepreneur wanted a good problem to study, she or he would figure out a way to level out the output gained from these systems so that solar power could be used at night and wind power on humid, still days. (Notice there are few windmills in the Deep South.) We advance technology insofar as the actual turbines and collector panels, but don’t consider that storage aspect of it as much – therein lies the benefits of fossil fuels, which are a vast storehouse of the energy we need that’s been sitting there for eons until extracted for our use. On a day like today wind would be good but there’s not much demand; meanwhile, those with solar panels are hurting because the weather is so bad.

We have been blessed with abundant resources, so why keep them in the ground?

In looking at my response, the ethanol “subsidies” are actually carveouts – the EPA mandates a certain amount to be blended into the gasoline supply each year. Be that as it may…

The electrical grid aspect was something I hadn’t really considered until recently, when I did my most recent “odds and ends” piece. Thanks to a series of posts by the Capital Research Center, I learned that one key problem with renewables is their effect on the electrical grid. Since their output isn’t as predictable as that of standard power plants, there’s often a problem with mobilizing the most efficient resources. Certainly a bright, sunny summer day is great for solar power production but that also means a natural gas plant has to be temporarily put offline, then restarted once the sun goes down. However, the next day could prove to be one which suddenly turns stormy, meaning yet another cycle of starting and stopping a fossil fuel plant. Obviously, the advantage of fossil fuels comes from the constant supply, with the X-factor only being the price paid for each megawatt-hour. Wind power presents a similar problem: you can have times when the wind is just right for a constant portion of the supply, but they are few and far between, and unpredictable. While their trade association begs to differ, the fact is that there too few breakdowns in conventional sources (not to mention a critical dependence on the carveout of a federal tax subsidy specifically for these projects) for wind to be more than a bit player – certainly not to the extent some states attempt to mandate it.

(Another great source of energy industry writing I carried for a time were the columns of Marita Noon, including this one on the wind industry. She’s since remarried and retired from the writing game. It turns out my loss was the city of Lubbock’s gain – Marita’s current avocation is something she’s long been interested in, rehabbing houses for resale.)

Essentially, Allison’s job as of late has been to be the loyal opposition to our Congressman, Andy Harris. He listened to the concerns of Ocean City regarding their tourism and repeated their case that the offshore wind project the state of Maryland has tried to site off Ocean City is close enough to mar the natural beauty of the beachfront view. While the industry and its supporters contend the windmills will be too small to clearly see, they’ve never contended the lights on the turbines would not be visible overnight. (Hint: they would be – a sea of red lights flashing on the horizon. This may be true at 26 miles as well.)

On another front in the progressive ranks, opposition has sprung up to a natural gas pipeline that would run through the Eastern Shore of Maryland from north to south. As described by the Delmarva Pipeline Company when the project was announced last year:

The project will provide these regions and their residents, who have historically been without access to natural gas and the associated benefits, with access to affordable, clean-burning, and abundant natural gas supplies to help meet the growing environmental need for cleaner fuels for power generation for industrial and commercial customers. In the future, local distribution companies will be able to provide home heating, hot water, and other domestic uses.

The proposed pipeline would tie into an existing pipeline near Rising Sun, Maryland, head east for a short distance, then run southward right along the border between Delaware and Maryland before terminating at a point in Accomack County, Virginia. At this time the only natural gas pipeline access on this part of the Eastern Shore are small areas from downtown Salisbury and the town of Berlin in Worcester County northward into Delaware along the U.S. 13 and U.S. 113 corridors, respectively. On the Mid-Shore there is a branch line that runs westward from Bridgeville, Delaware to serve Easton, Maryland. Aside from that, there’s nothing south of the I-95 corridor serving the Eastern Shore. (Delaware has the three feeder pipes that terminate in Maryland to serve Sussex County.)

According to news reports, it’s a $1.25 billion private investment that will finally open up natural gas service to areas not served on the Eastern Shore. So what’s not to like? Well, apparently there is a group against it.

While their comment about possible leakage falls a little flat because it’s a gas pipeline and not oil, their real argument is served up by a sentence from a release by Blue Wicomico, which is a slate running for the local Democratic Central Committee. “If we invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure projects like this pipeline,” they whine, “it will discourage investment in the future like renewable energy projects that will bring much-needed jobs and economic growth to the region.”

Look, if you want to invest in green energy, there’s nothing stopping you. The fact that few will do so without the government goosing the system, though, tells me that the rewards aren’t enough for the risks.

And about that job creation? As Paul Rich, the Director of Project Management for U.S. Wind, testified before the Maryland Public Service Commission:

Due to the nascent stage of development of the U.S. Offshore Wind Industry, much of the highest technological components will have to initially be imported from manufacturing facilities in Europe. Components such as turbine generators, manufactured blades, and transmission cables will be most economically sourced from existing facilities in Europe.

If you’re counting on that job creation for the Eastern Shore or for Maryland in general, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

So let’s get to work building that pipeline, which is slated for completion in late 2020. Give those who don’t have it access to another reliable energy source.

Secession over energy

You might recall that an ongoing, back-burner thought we on the Eastern Shore have had is the idea of seceding from the state of Maryland – a state which otherwise belittles us, doesn’t share our concern about the agricultural community, and tries to lord it over us because we only have a small percentage of the population. With a Republican governor that sentiment has diminished somewhat but it’s still active among a few.

The southern tier of counties in the state of New York have a similar beef. Their state is controlled by the denizens of the Big Apple, which overshadows both the urban enclaves of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany and the rural areas upstate. Those who represent the urban areas have prevailed on the state government to ban fracking in the state, which means areas within the Marcellus Shale formation can’t tap into that valuable resource, while just a few miles away Pennsylvania towns and cities are thriving. This story by Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times makes it plain that residents in that area are frustrated, just as those who live in the western end of Maryland have been pleading for the state to lift its de facto ban on the practice. Instead, the Maryland General Assembly put yet another two-year delay on the books.

In both cases, the problem lies in the small minority of citizens who are blessed to live in an energy-rich portion of a state being forced by a majority who thinks they know better to suffer, watching those who live just a few miles away prosper.

Also in both cases, the chances of secession vary between slim and none, with slim vacating town to pursue a fracking job in an adjacent state.

Of course, this is the small drawback to having 50 different state governments: it allows for some to fail in their economic efforts. Both New York and Maryland have an economic engine which depends on the growing alliance and partnership between Wall Street and the federal government, with thousands of financial sector workers in New York City and thousands of federal employees in Maryland. In their worldview, we can secure all our energy needs from renewable sources and oil and natural gas are dirty, nasty fossil fuels. Problem is we still use an awful lot of those fossil fuels because renewables are extremely expensive or highly subsidized.

Perhaps what needs to secede is the crazy idea that fracking is something to be avoided at all costs from the laws of the several states. Until then, those poor people in New York and western Maryland will continue to see prosperity from afar.

Showing how useful we on the Shore are

You know, it’s interesting. While Republican gubernatorial candidates come down, talk to the people, and press the flesh at open (or at least nominally priced) events, those on the other side are going to be far from the limelight and even farther from a bus stop.

No, Ken Ulman isn’t exactly stopping in a transit-oriented development, and you better check for a nitrogen-reducing septic system since that area is pretty far outside the urban core. But the list of sponsors is the A-list of local Democratic officials from Salisbury and surrounding areas – although interesting exceptions to the list are Delegate Rudy Cane and Salisbury City Council members Tim Spies, Terry Cohen, and Laura Mitchell. Are they supporting Doug Gansler, Heather Mizeur, or waiting for a better offer? I know Mitchell gave to Martin O’Malley in his re-election effort, so perhaps she’s not as impressed with the mini-me?

The interesting piece of the puzzle is that I received this from a Republican friend of mine who got this invitation, with another intriguing sidebar being that one of the sponsors listed here was apparently the guest of a sitting member of County Council at our Wicomico County Republican Club Crab Feast. While we don’t mind taking money from Democrats, who wish to donate of their free will – unlike the usual case with their side and their oppressive taxation – you wonder what might be said at this Ulman soiree regarding the Republican candidates who showed up at our Saturday event.

Now this list of sponsors is nothing new at local Democratic events. Although not all are presently elected officials, most are regular supporters of local Democratic candidates for whom big government and/or the “good old boy club” mean enhanced business and personal fortune – for example, Marty Neat is a local bank CEO.

Obviously the take here will be but a drop in the bucket for the overall campaign. But Brown’s is a campaign which eschewed the Eastern Shore on its announcement tour back in June, unlike his Republican counterparts, so it’s apparent that all the Eastern Shore is good for to them is money. These sponsors are donating it willingly so that the rest of us will be compelled to part with ours in a not-so-voluntary manner.

Jobs report dreadful to Shore

As has often been the case, Martin O’Malley’s personal irritant – that burr under his saddle known as Change Maryland – came out with hard jobs data which showed he’s the job-losing governor.

Using federal employment figures, the number crunchers at Change Maryland found out that 22 of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions have seen total employment fall from 2007 through 2011. The only two jurisdictions showing gains were St. Mary’s and Howard counties, with St. Mary’s state-leading growth pegged at 6.2 percent. (In real jobs, it’s just under 2,500. Howard County had a smaller 2.8% gain but it translated into just over 4,000 jobs.)

To be fair, though, the numbers through the first half of 2012 would prove sufficient to put eight counties in the black from their 2007 average. Even that comes with a caveat, though, for in June employment tends to be around the highest in the calendar year; in particular June numbers would pull Worcester County to a point where its employment growth would be 20 percent. That’s why Change Maryland opted to use a common yearlong average in compiling its bleak set of figures.

Speaking in the press release accompanying the numbers:

“Coming out of the recession, we’re just not posting strong gains consistently, across the state,” said Change Maryland Communications and Policy Director Jim Pettit. “And we’re finding that our largest jurisdictions are pulling employment levels down, and we need to see an opposite trend in order to restore economic performance statewide.”

On the very last page of their release, Change Maryland ranks each county in percentage growth (or decline) and that’s where Martin O’Malley’s War on Rural Maryland (and, in particular, the Eastern Shore) rears its ugly head. The bottom nine performers, the laggards in an already slothlike recovery, just so happen to be the nine counties comprising the Eastern Shore. (In order from bad to worst, they are Caroline, Worcester, Somerset, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s, Wicomico, Talbot, Cecil, and Kent.) 12,853 jobs have been lost in the period between 2007 and 2011 within that nine-county area, which had a total employment of 159,501 as of the end of 2011. Put another way, for every 100 jobs which existed here on the Eastern Shore in 2007, only 92 remained four years later.

So why is the Eastern Shore holding back the state? I have a number of theories, some of which can be traced to O’Malley’s liberal policies and others being systemic problems without such a quick fix.

Obviously the O’Malley bias against rural development is best shown by the passage of SB236 last year, a bill which allowed the state to butt into local planning decisions and encouraged growth only in limited areas. Want to build a job-creating facility in an area with room to expand? Not so fast. The ever-increasing taxes and fees adopted or expanded by O’Malley haven’t helped much either.

But we can’t completely blame O’Malley for everything, regardless of the temptation to do so. Bad decisions have been made by the previous federal, state and local authorities as well, most particularly in the area of infrastructure and transportation. Most glaring among those to me was not building a southern crossing over Chesapeake Bay at its narrow portion just west of Cambridge and not pushing to have a better north-south highway built through Delaware, to allow quicker access to the Northeast. Both of those would be difficult, if not impossible, to complete now in the present anti-growth climate.

There will be those who say the problem with the Eastern Shore is that it’s grown too much and losing its rural character. But I beg to differ, as that rural character is falling victim more to the ubiquitous, homogenized media culture than to any growth. We are a long, long way from becoming Howard County or the bedroom suburbs south of Washington, D.C. because we don’t have a large metropolis to serve as a driving force for suburbanization. (The largest Eastern Shore city is Salisbury, with a population just over 30,000. Several I-95 corridor suburban bedroom communities are larger by themselves, not to mention the root urban area.) Even if we grew at an astounding rate of 10 percent a year, Wicomico County would take decades to get to the level of a Montgomery County.

But we’re not going to get anywhere except to becoming the next deserted dust bowl if policies in Maryland (and nationally) don’t change. Change Maryland just showed us the evidence that what we’re doing now is a disaster.

As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that Delegate Mike McDermott introduced a bill to repeal last year’s SB236. HB106 is seventeen pages long, but practically all of the text is there in order to show existing law which would be scrubbed. A total of 24 GOP co-sponsors are behind the bill, which is awaiting a hearing in Delegate Maggie McIntosh’s Environmental Matters Committee.

The understanding of ‘trickle down’

Well, I guess this old Senate candidate won’t fade away; then again despite celebrating a birthday yesterday Dan Bongino really isn’t that old. He showed once again his economic chops in a statement yesterday:

Maryland is preparing to take the gold medal in a competition only a fool would want to win. If we go over the “Fiscal Cliff”, my home state of Maryland will see an incredible $7,000 tax hike for a family making just the median income, according to an analysis by the Tax Foundation. This dramatic tax hike ranks as the highest amongst the 50 states and would do untold damage to the state’s already fragile economic environment.

Noticeably absent from the 2012 campaign conversation was the real economic impact of these dramatic tax hikes on families living in high cost-of-living states such as Maryland. Disposable income simply does not buy in Maryland what it purchases in lower cost-of-living states and when combined with our total tax burden, it is creating an unsustainable economic environment. Nearly 40,000 Marylanders have fled the state since 2007 and the exodus stands to worsen without a change in course.

This tax hike on the “Rich” political pitch is a red herring designed to further a political agenda, not an economic one. It is time for the President to lead, the campaign is over and the country needs a President, not a politician.

Good luck with that last sentence. But there are a couple points which Dan misses here.

It’s assumed that Maryland is a among the wealthiest of states, and as an average that’s probably true because so much of the population lives along the Beltway and, quite frankly, living off the federal government is most lucrative when you’re an employee or employed by someone who depends on the same sort of skilled labor and has to compete salary-wise. But come out here to the “shithouse,” as the late Governor William Donald Schaefer once referred to the Eastern Shore, and you’ll find that the tax increases may not exact the same amount per capita but will make it even harder to live a reasonable lifestyle. Those of us in the lowest of tax brackets will see rates increase 50 percent, and it has to be granted that the 13.1% rate hike endured by the top bracket will look paltry by comparison.

The other point Dan left incomplete was mentioning not just those who fled Maryland, but their economic status in comparison to those who arrive to take their place. Several months ago Change Maryland released figures showing these differing numbers and I parsed them to find out the net outflow of income is real despite a slowly growing population. Obviously there are some places where the difference is positive, but the lower performing areas tend to be the poorer ones.

All in all, though, this is another excellent analysis from a guy who’s not choosing to stay quiet after a crushing defeat. I’m not sure why we would have expected otherwise.

This also gives me the opportunity to bring up an event Dan will be a featured speaker at next month. The Turning the Tides 2013 conference will be held in Annapolis at the Doubletree Hotel (site of several past state GOP conventions) and details can be found here. Along with Dan we’ll hear from state and national luminaries like Jim Rutledge, Ken Timmerman, gubernatorial candidate Blaine Young, Pamela Geller, Stanley Kurtz, and many others.

The ghost towns

I was checking one of my e-mail accounts today and one of the news items on top of their homepage was this gem about American Ghost Towns of the 21st Century. Just check out number 4:

4. Worcester County, Md.

Number of homes: 55,749
Vacancy rate: 60%
Population: 49,274

The Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation recently estimated that the county would have a sharp drop in its tax base in fiscal year 2012 and “another, more drastic, revenue decrease” for the fiscal year that follows. The twin engines of county’s economy are tourism and agriculture. Experts believe the tourism business in Maryland’s Eastern Shore could stay crippled for years.

Now, we locals know what article writer Douglas A. McIntyre may not necessarily grasp: at the time the Census was dated (April 1, 2010) there wouldn’t have been all that many tourists in Ocean City – or any other of the featured Midwestern tourist areas which depend on snowmobiling or ice fishing in the winter and recreational activities in the summer. The moment in time the Census was taken was betwixt and between these peak periods, which made the vacancy rate scarily high.

But he may be correct on his last sentence regarding Worcester County. Having myself been a casualty of the demise of the local building business over the last half-decade, I can vouch for how much we’d overbuilt in that time. At one time I checked a condo project I worked on and found just five of 23 units had sold two years after completion – certainly other projects I worked on had similar numbers. In Salisbury we only have to look along our Wicomico River to find a reminder of what happened to the local real estate industry once the mid-2000’s boom went bust; the building sits as a half-completed memorial to a better economic era. I was thinking the other day that I could name nearly as many projects I’d started on which were cancelled as ones I worked on which were built – there’s at least three decent-sized buildings or renovations catering to the tourist/second home trade I could think of which were once planned for Ocean City but were shelved by the building bust.

We thought we were at the early stages of a boom time for the lower Eastern Shore, but apparently our local area was only attractive to retirees – and who can retire now in these uncertain financial times when half of a home’s value has been wiped away? Just try selling a second home.

Then couple with that with the prospect for both rampant inflation and higher gasoline prices for the next several years, and one can see why those who depend on the tourist trade are right to worry. The difference between having $4 a gallon gas in 2008 and the prospect of $4 a gallon gas in 2011 is that unemployment had barely edged above 5% as the summer season loomed in 2008 – now three years hence we’re talking an “official” rate of nearly 9 percent but when those who consider themselves ‘underemployed’ because they want more hours or those who have stopped looking are added to it, we’re close to 20 percent of the workforce. Moreover, the nest eggs people still had in 2008 aren’t there in 2011.

Sure, Ocean City will likely survive this relatively intact, but given those indications the writer may be citing the correct information when he restates that “the tourism business in Maryland’s Eastern Shore could stay crippled for years.” It may not be so much Ocean City but the ancillary areas like Salisbury, Crisfield, and inland Delaware which feel the blow.

This illustrates the need for diversifying our local economy. Now I realize that Governor O’Malley and Maryland Democrats are thinking that allowing a racino at Ocean Downs and building a wind farm offshore will provide us an economic shot in the arm. But Maryland’s system of adding features to casinos each two years (since any change needs an affirmative vote of the people) and reliance on an energy source which proves to be cost-ineffective will likely mean neither of these so-called panaceas will have much of an impact.

Instead, cutting taxes, easing onerous state regulations, and making business startup simpler, along with needed infrastructure improvements like a interstate-grade highway connecting the lower Eastern Shore to I-95 near Wilmington, Delaware (and eventually south to Norfolk, Virginia) are solutions which wouldn’t be nearly as sexy but would be a lot more effective.

Obviously there were people attracted to this area for something, whether it was the water, a rural small-town lifestyle, or the vibe which comes from living in a resort area. Even in these economic doldrums we have a lot of assets many other areas covet. Think someone who moved to North Dakota to toil in the oil fields there wouldn’t kill to have a beach nearby and better weather? But they have a job – North Dakota has the nation’s lowest unemployment rate – and a lot of us don’t.

I realize our area is the red-headed stepchild of the state, and no less than former Governor William Donald Schaefer called the Eastern Shore a “shithouse.” Their general attitude is one of us being ‘flythrough’ country – speeding through Delmarva until they can get to their beachfront houses or condos in Ocean City or up along the Delaware coast. Out of a population of nearly 6 million in the state, our scant 450,000 or so really doesn’t matter – especially since we vote Republican.

So there’s a lot of strikes against us, and we truly need some ingenuity to work around the handicaps the state of Maryland throws at us. Thus, be advised that, until we get a good source of jobs, we’re going to have that insanely high vacancy rate even in areas well off the ocean.