Dow Chemical Finds Free-Market Religion

27 07 2010

I was going to talk about sane solutions for ground transportation this week and I was going to lead with a tidbit, but that snowballed into the entire rant of its own.

Last week I was reading The Wall Street Journal on my 1994 organic cotton-stuffed futon when I had a “Ha!  You scheming, scamming, shysters!” moment.    In Law of Gravity Repealed, I accused for-profit corporations who are in favor of carbon caps of essentially getting in bed with the political hacks in Washington to form the rules of the game such that they come out ahead of their competitors.  First off, this is a really stupid and naïve strategy that has been demonstrated time and again.  The saying goes if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

Companies have three choices when a bill that will deeply affect their business is being debated: (1) fight it with everything they’ve got, (2) help form the legislation whether it will be good for them or not, and (3) ignore it and hope for the best.  I would say that most times when they cede power to the government and think they can come out ahead, they get burned badly.  This happened with big pharma and the insurance industry with the recently passed healthcare bill.  Big pharma thought they could greatly increase their sales with 30 million new customers.  What idiots.  Hello?!!  And they suppose Washington is going to let them charge “market” rates for these 30 million new customers carried entirely by the government.  What morons.  With perhaps the exception of utilities that will be able to more easily recover costs due to their monopoly status, other large corporations will get burned in the same way with any cap and trade bill that is passed.  The exception may be General Electric where the pathetic CEO Jeffrey Immelt is putting all the company’s chips on successfully bribing a majority in Washington to save the company.  Otherwise tell me, how is a HUGE energy consumer like Dow Chemical or producer/user like Exxon Mobil going to come out on top.  Don’t mess with Washington.  You’ll get the horns.

To get back on track regarding last week’s WSJ –  [reprinted in this news source because it is no longer available on the WSJ’s website]  Dow Chemical, one of the companies I mentioned a couple months ago has seen the political light, which is actually the dark side because there is no bright side in Washington.

Suddenly when cap and trade was shelved last week and Harry Reid started talking instead of a wimpier policy to encourage the use of natural gas, Dow found free-market religion.  Using natural gas in place of nearly any other fossil fuel will reduce CO2 emissions.  But wait!  Dow is suddenly opposed to reducing greenhouse gasses.  In a letter supported by many companies and other “special interests”, they write to call on the Senate “not to include any provisions in energy legislation that would ‘artificially’ increase demand for natural gas in the power and transportation sectors.”  Let’s see.  Cap and trade; artificial pricing pressure and market manipulation.  Nope, I’m not seeing any difference here.  I don’t understand Dow’s reversal.  What happened to the do-gooder spirit?

Purely guessing, Dow probably has millions of carbon credits that are worthless without cap and trade.  They may also think they can increase their insulation sales with its passage.  I would also like to see the other corporate signatories on that letter.  T Boone is most likely not a signatory.

In another non-irony, the National Corn Growers Association also opposes the “artificially” high priced natural gas.

[Courtesy pause here while you finish laughing out loud]

I cannot think of more manipulated markets than the ones for corn and ethanol.  First, federal programs to pay farmers to NOT produce crops have been around for decades.  I recall as a kid, we had to “divert” xx% of baseline corn acres.  So what did we and everyone else do – diverted the acres where nothing grew (sandy patches) or acres that were at high risk of being flooded.

Second, there is the fattest sacred cow of them all: ethanol.  The ethanol lobby that includes weaklings like Archer Daniels Midland along with the Corn Growers Association has bagged a permanent 50 cent per gallon subsidy courtesy of me and a few million other Americans, the taxpayers.  In addition to this handout, it may be the most trade-protected industry in the country, save for maybe sugar.  Imports would be slapped with an insurmountable 54 cent per gallon tariff so we can’t import cheaper ethanol from places like Brazil where cane-sugar-derived ethanol has allowed them to be energy independent since 2006.  A 50 cent subsidy plus a 54 cent tariff on imports: more than a dollar a gallon direct artificial price manipulation.  I can’t think of a more favorably manipulated market than the one the corn industry has.

To demonstrate the damage heavily manipulated markets wreak, many ethanol companies went bust starting a couple years ago as the price of their feedstock, corn, soared to record highs.  Nobody saw those prices coming.  Maybe they should have hedged against the risk of soaring feedstock prices  – whoop!  Can’t do that anymore because of the recently passed financial overhaul.  More manipulation and interference…

Epilog:  I’m practically from Iowa and my family has grown a lot corn for many years.  Even though it is all fed to livestock, the artificial upward pressure on the corn market would seem to help because it makes growing livestock more expensive, driving down meat and poultry supply and improving prices.  But like the tobacco industry that was strictly controlled with government quotas, farmers would benefit from the trashing of government manipulation.  Income rises and surprise!  Farms get smaller – just what everyone seems to want!

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP





Oil Slick Musings

1 06 2010

It’s been about a month since I prognosticated and reflected on the BP disaster in the golf.  Let’s see how things have unfolded.  My predictions:

  • Political food fight
  • Underestimated disaster
  • Lack of “what if” on BPs part
  • Where is the outrage?

First, I said politicians would engage in a political food fight while Rome burns.   Sure enough, less than a week after that post, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee assembled a dog and pony show to poke executives of BP, Transocean, and Halliburton with a stick in the eye.  Actually, it was like a dog show alright – a dog fight that is – putting these three executives in a pen and let them go after each other.  Fortunately no one was hurt, physically.

This was purely for show.  They wanted to know how this happened.  What good does that do at this point or certainly at that point a month ago?  These senators probably don’t understand how hot dog cart works, let alone hyper complex deep sea oil drilling and the fluid dynamics involved.  At that early point in the game, the executives probably didn’t even know what exactly happened 5,000 feet below the surface.  They were probably lucky to have time to determine what happened on the rig.

Senator Sessions piles on by describing the spectacle had a lack of candor coming from the corporate execs.  How about this: there was a lack of KNOWLEDGE at that point, you bonehead.  Senator Murkowski said this will affect energy policy going forward.  More on this later.

Second, there would be a tendency to underestimate the enormity of the disaster.  The greatest sin of the federal government is not following their own laws.  After the Valdez disaster, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was signed into law to have the federal government equipped and ready for the next disaster.  You can guess what happened as a result of this law: pretty much nothing.  The feds had no fire booms to corral spilled oil and set it afire.  The US went begging around the world for equipment the federal statutes said we were supposed to have on hand.

For the first month, Washington just crossed its fingers and hoped for the best – like shooting the rapids in a canoe.  The worst thing you can do is freeze with the oars out of the water.  That will get you capsized.  Finally, Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, bolts onto the scene declaring the feds will “keep their boot on the neck of BP”, to make sue they “giterdone”.  Now THAT is one thing the feds can do well: put their boot on your neck alright.  What an idiotic thing to say.  He later spews from his oral orifice “if we find out that they’re [BP] not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately”.  LOL!  Then what?  We send our fearless congress down to take over?

Senator Nelson of Florida says the administration should “completely take over” the mess.  Colin Powell says the federal government should move in “with decisive force”.   Whadayou talking about man? The government can take over a whacko cult compound somewhere in Texas, but an oil leak? With decisive force?  It seems to me a “decisive force” put the oil rig on the ocean floor.  I think the feds should remove some of their own agencies with decisive force – like the Army Corps of Engineers that has to do an environmental impact study before allowing the construction of berms to protect wetlands from the oil.  How stupid is that?

Lack of “what if” thinking on the part of BP; that water is already far down the stream.  On the flip side of this being such a careless error in design, it will be corrected such that this will never happen again.  Before Valdez, there were hardly any double-hulled tankers.  They are nearly all double-hulled now, with the exception of China, which seems to have trouble keeping lethal quantities of benzene out of its rivers.  Back to my Nuclear Navy experience; Why is the organization so hyper anal about safety?  Aside from the obvious reasons of getting people hurt or killed, if there was a nuclear accident, it would end the program.  Now that is WHAT IF foresight.

Where is the outrage?  It’s starting to grow exponentially.  I believe what held initial outrage down is that the president is Mr. Obama, the guilty private sector company is based overseas, and the great Satan, Halliburton, was actually trying to direct BP away from the course events on the rig that lead to the disaster. The usual villains weren’t present.  If it was Bush, Exxon-Mobil, and Halliburton…hoooo.  Hellfire and brimstone before the thing even sank.  However, this disaster is outliving the politics.  The Democrats are starting to eat their own with Exhibit A, James Carville.

Do I criticize the administration’s performance?  Not so much but they ought to shove federal bureaucrats out of the way and lock them up till this is over; or better yet, maybe lock them up until they are eligible for retirement.  A major problem with the country is people think the government should ride to the rescue for everything that goes wrong.  If we want the government to handle everything well, it will do nothing well.

Another thing that will be a mistake at best and a fiasco at worst is turning Eric Holder loose on a witch hunt in the region before the oil stops flowing.  Who is he going to pursue?  Probably engineers and their supervisors who know more about this particular situation than anyone on planet earth, which incidentally may not be Holder’s home.  This is just what we need – the people who need to spend every waking hour working to find a solution will be harassed by Holder, who has the demonstrated competence of Barney Fife and the subtle charm of a rabid bat.

Unfortunately my next prediction, actually a guarantee, is the feds will of course impose more regulation on the oil industry.  You may be thinking “damn right”.  But wait a minute.  We already had an entire agency (Minerals Management Service) with two missions (1) oversight to prevent disasters like this from happening and (2) to make sure the feds get their cut of the oil revenue.  Well guess what, these guys were going to ballgames and taking gifts on the largess of the companies they are supposed to be regulating.  And while they’re not at the ballgame, they were watching porn at work (not making this up).   So I ask, do we just need more of this, or another agency to look over the agency who’s supposed to be policing all this?  Oh wait, we already have that.  It’s called the Department of Interior.

One solution already has been to split the MMS into two: (1) a fee collecting arm and (2) a safety arm.  Why?  Because collecting money and safety are at odds with one another; it’s a conflict of interest.  Think about that.  What private sector business doesn’t have the same “conflict of interest”?  Go to nearly any manufacturing or labor/machinery intensive facility or even retail and you will see signs of xx days without a work-related injury.  As visitors, we have to even sit through safety training courses prior to going on site at some places.  Aside from caring for workers, injuries are just plain expensive and money losers.  And since when do these vagarious chums care about federal revenue?  What is in it for them?  Are they getting kickbacks?  Does the mafia control MMS?  Safety is number 1 out here.

Like the “solution” to this disaster, we will get laws that punish everyone but the guilty, ala Sarbanes Oxley as a result of Enron.  Nevermind that Enron broke a million laws already on the books.  But like doctors who fill prescriptions, legislators write bills, and a lot of really bad ones, because after all, they have to do something.  Innocent bystanders who follow the rules pay for the sins of the guilty to what end?  In this case everyone who uses transportation or buys things gets hit.  I.e., everyone but the Amish.

What will prevent this particular accident from ever happening again:  (1) BP pays for the cleanup, (2) determine what failed and/or failed to work, and (3) develop a method that is 99.9% assured of killing a well, with five more backups of equal probability of success in series.  This type of disaster will not happen again, if for no other reason, it will take billions out of shareholders’ hides to clean up this colossal mess.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP