September 27, 2007
Nation Needs a Common Sense Energy Policy

by Donald G. Mashburn

Other than a well-trained and well-equipped military, a common sense oil policy may well be this nation’s most important priority.

But common sense element is missing from the rhetoric coming from Liberals in Congress and others detached from energy reality. They talk as if biomass fuels can wean us from our reliance on petroleum. But like so many other tales spun in Congress, biomass energy cannot eliminate our need for oil. Not for a long time, anyway.

You’ve heard the rhetoric lambasting “Big Oil,” and touting the wonders of ethanol and biodiesel from crops grown to fuel our energy-wasting habits. The chorus often is led by farm-state, subsidy-loving politicians like Sen. Dick “No Drill” Durbin, D-IL, and reliably anti-oil politicians from the Northeast.

The chorus gets more shrill and irrational whenever someone proposes drilling for and producing oil and gas from the Artic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), or off our East and West Coasts.

But just the mention of ANWR sets off wild claims for biomass fuels, as if squeezing ethanol and biodiesel out of corn, switch grass and other vegetation will allow us to continue energy-consuming binge. However, credible studies indicate that it may take as much as 20 years for biofuels to supply even five to 10 percent of our fuel needs.

That’s about one to two million barrels of oil. To replace that with biomass fuel would require some 25 million acres, or about 39,000 square miles of harvestable land, according to John Deutch, professor of chemistry at MIT.

We shouldn’t forget that processes for biomass fuels require substantial amounts of conventional fuel, and under certain conditions can require more energy than the process produces. The political dream-weavers don’t tell us that.

It’s clear that we can’t ride biofuels to energy independence. It’s clear, too, that no single source of energy can do it. Not biomass, tar sands, oil shale, or even coal. There’s no “free ride” to energy independence, despite the wild claims of farm state politicians and their “green” supporters – often aided and abetted by the just plain uninformed, and the hypocritical enemies of the oil industry.

Still, politicians – especially some of those running for president – prattle on about “energy independence,” but don’t mention that petroleum consumption is expected to average about 21 million barrels per day (BOPD). This year, the U.S. will produce an estimated 5.2 million BOPD, barring events like hurricanes and pipeline breaks that could reduce our domestic crude oil production.

So the road to energy “independence” would be rough, and perhaps impassable. We could park about one-half of all our vehicles, reduce airline travel by half, and cut oil-intensive industrial operations by enough to bring our energy consumption into balance with our domestic oil production – currently some five million BOPD.

But we wouldn’t like the high unemployment rates; the lack of, or high prices of, plastics and other petroleum-based synthetic materials; and rationing of electricity. We also wouldn’t care for what shutting off our oil imports would do to our trade arrangements, not to mention the economic shock to national economies worldwide.

All the preaching from Congress and others detached from energy reality, won’t generate a single barrel of oil. The U.S. may never see true energy independence, and the largest oil reserves are located in nations that are hostile, unstable or unreliably “neutral” toward us, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and now Venezuela.

We can do some sensible things to lower our dependence on foreign oil. Our greatest energy asset is coal. Some have estimated that we have a coal supply that can last for some 300 years. No one really knows, but we should be finding out.

Gasoline from coal is feasible. South Africa proved that during the draconian sanctions of the apartheid years. Besides coal, we can tap wind, hydroelectric, biomass, oil shale and tar sands for the contributions they can make. And we should take fuel cell potential to the maximum. But it will take years, perhaps decades, for these to be major sources of energy.

Until then, certain politicians will continue their hypocritical opposition to the U.S. becoming more self-reliant in energy. Voters who are tired of high gas prices, and self-serving politicians who use the oil industry as a whipping boy, should start insisting that Congress get off its “do-nothing-stool” and do something about our chronic domestic oil deficit.

We should develop all feasible renewable energy resources, including biomass fuels. Without federal subsidies! If these alternative fuels can’t compete when gasoline is three dollars a gallon, when can they? Taxpayers should not be victimized by politicians who want to pump billions of taxpayer dollars into their own states and districts in the form of governmental pork.

The U.S. should pull out all the stops to permit a high tech oil industry to tap our energy reserves ALONG both coasts. And we should start development of oil and gas reserves in the ANWR immediately.

GM Digs Its Hole Deeper

by Donald G. Mashburn

General Motors apparently never heard the sage advice that if you find you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the first rule is to quit digging. But GM’s new agreement with the UAW lets GM continuing digging what may be its eventual grave in its North American operations.

Past deals with the UAW have resulted in monumental financial obligations too heavy for any business to hold up under for long. ȁInept” may be too kind an adjective for overpaid GM executives who rolled over for the union bosses until GM was saddled with financial loads so heavy the company may not ever be able to carry them all.

GM’s highly-paid management, with help from union negotiators, built up a huge unfunded retiree health care obligation of some $51 billion. The new agreement lets GM shift, at a high initial cost, a large portion of that $51 million to a “Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association” (VEBA), a trust to be operated by the UAW.

GM expects to pay $36 billion into the trust, or about 70 percent of the total. In return, the union would assume the burden of health care for an estimated 340,000 GM hourly retirees and their spouses.

So GM, theoretically, GM will shift its health care responsibility to the union. But if the VEBA should ever fall short financially, be it from union mismanagement or whatever, who would want to wager that the union will not try to saddle GM with it again?

And from the past performance of GM executives, they just might put their head into the financial noose once again.

Also, with wide publicity on the flood of red ink flowing from U.S. automakers, and even talk a few months back of possible bankruptcy for GM and Ford, you might think GM would stand tough against union demands on wages. But the GM Pooh-Bahs thought it necessary to give workers an initial $3,000 “signing bonus,” and a lump-sum payment of approximately three-percent of annual wages, for three consecutive years!

But perhaps the area in which GM execs seem to be unable to grasp the reality of the sad performance of their U.S. operations is in the jobs bank program. You will recall that deal that lets laid-off workers receive paychecks and other benefits. That deal was retained with the modification that expands the geographic area in which workers would be expected to accept an open job.

Overall, the performance of GM management has been poor. The UAW’s two-day strike seemed to be the punch that buckled the knees of at the GM execs – who have a long string of bouts where they threw in the towel early.

If GM hasn’t turned the corner in the first two years of the four-year pact, the hole they’ve been digging for decades may be too deep to get out of with a North American operation that’s even a shadow of its former greatness.

When that becomes obvious, even GM executives will know it’s time to start transferring operations out of the country. The new pact with the UAW seems likely to increase the probability of that happening.

OSU Coach’s Critics Just Don’t Get It

by Donald G. Mashburn

By now, the nation has been flooded with opinions on Oklahoma State University head football Mike Gundy’s blast at Daily Oklahoman columnist Jenni Carlson, for a piece Carlson wrote on OSU quarterback Back Reid. But it’s amazing how few of those voicing or writing opinions actually read Carlson’s piece before speaking out.

So what was Gundy’ beef? What so incensed him that he let his blowup crowd out a celebration of his OSU Cowboy’s thrilling come-from-behind win, 49 to 45, over offensive powerhouse Texas Tech?

Actually reading Carlson’s misguided journalistic effort helps one put the whole fracas in perspective.

First, if Carlson had merely expressed opinions regarding quarterback Reid’s abilities, effort, or performance no one would have paid much attention. Or if she criticized bad behavior, if warranted – but Reid is the epitome of a respectful, mannerly and well-behaved athlete – it would have been just another effort to fill a column.

But Carlson’s column was not just a mediocre piece, it was worse, because the writer sought to relate some non-athletic acts – Reid eating chicken outside the team bus impute and being caught laughing during a game his team was losing – to Reid’s inner feelings, courage and motivations. In all these Carlson was unqualified to render such personal judgments. Worse, they had absolutely nothing to do with the athlete, the team, or the game of football.

One can only wonder at how Carlson, in her head, could tie a weak lead about Reid eating his mother’s chicken in the parking lot, to Reid’s performance as a quarterback. Carlson and her defenders just don’t seem to get it.

To repeat, it wasn’t opinion or any “facts” regarding Bobby Reid’s abilities and injuries that so many readers of Carlson’s column found repugnant, but it was her really poor judgment in claiming that Reid eating his mother’s fried chicken, while standing in a parking lot, “said so much about Reid.  A 21-year-old letting his mother feed him in public?”

In some three decades of writing, I can’t recall a more useless (to the column’s premise) and insensitive (to the subject and his mother) – or dumb – comment appearing in an opinion column.  Carlson showed an abysmal ignorance of the close bond between so many black athletes (who grew up without the influence of an at-home father) and their mothers.

Mothers like to feed their children, especially athletes far from home, and “care” packages are not that uncommon.  Prior to that pointless and offensive slam, Carlson had questioned Reid’s courage and fortitude (or whatever “fire in his belly” might mean to her) with the vacuous and useless question: “Or does he want to be coddled, babied, perhaps even fed chicken?”

And she got this “deep insight” into Reid’s inner being, his courage, and the “fire in his belly” all from the mental picture of Reid standing beside the team bus eating his mother’s fried chicken.

Carlson must have turned off her “writer’s switch” on that stretch. She should have known that readers would react to such a characterization of a black athlete eating his mother’s fried chicken hundreds of miles from home. Carlson’s clumsy comments could have been worse only if she had made a reference to watermelons – which are difficult for mothers to include in box lunches for their sons away at college.

The columnist’s offensive remarks regarding being “fed chicken,” “babied,” and her claimed supernatural insight that eating his mother’s chicken in a parking lot “said so much about Reid,” should be beneath any serious writer at any level.

A writer can’t get into the head or heart of her subject, and should not claim to, nor should she throw out insinuating questions regarding what might be in that subject’s mind.

And any editor approving such a poor piece had to have his mind on something besides content, journalistic ethics, and plain common decency and sense.

It’s interesting to note that those praising Gundy’s defense of his quarterback include many coaches and athletes, while those defending Carlson include a lot of women writers, and women’s organizations.

Since it was Carlson’s poor judgment and writing that started the fracas, it would be a good thing if she The Oklahoman could “grow” enough – and quickly – to issue an apology to Bobby Reid, his mother and to coach Gundy and OSU. The “cost” would be negligible to show this bit of class and at least try to heal some of the hurt inflicted on a black athlete and his family.

 To belittle a person is to be little.  And it takes a much bigger person to admit a wrong than to insist on being right.