SOTU 2014

Might as well join the herd and weigh in. I told myself that I wouldn’t watch the State of the Union Address, but with the same kind of twisted motivation that makes people poke at a sore spot, I did.

I only caught the last 20 minutes or so. I read the text and then watched it partly with the sound on and partly with the sound off.

With the sound off, it was interesting to watch President Obama in top form – smooth, with familiar conversational gestures and expressions. It was also interesting to see him framed between the faces of VP Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner. Biden was the faithful Ed McMahon to Obama’s Johnny Carson. He was attentive and both mirrored and reacted to his boss as reinforcement. Boehner sat there with a restrained look of disbelief, a sort of perpetual “Jesus H. Christ, what is this shit?” He was restrained, nevertheless, with no eye rolling and appropriate applause when Obama trotted out the usual patriotic references.

Easy to miss: At one point Biden palmed a mint or candy into his mouth with nearly the deftness of a sleight of hand artist. Nearly. Points for on-camera audacity.

Visual and political differences aside, always remember: The man on the left was selected by millionaires. The man in the middle was selected by millionaires. The man on the right was selected by millionaires.

The President tucked it to the Republicans a few times, which was amusing. He mentioned the 40 votes against the Affordable Care Act in the House. That was a three-fer, nailing the GOP for obstructionism, wasting time, and impotence. He also pegged them on the minimum wage with a classic “When did you stop beating your wife?” line.

“In the coming weeks, I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.”

Oh, the troops, riiiight. Let’s face it, in our present climate of military-worship you could tag the word “troops” onto the concept of eating dogshit on toast and people would at least consider it. Attached to “Let’s give America a raise!” it’s a winner. POTUS wins a prize for irrefutable emotional rhetoric. And, surprisingly enough, a good idea.

He gave a special hoist-with-your-own-petard shout out to ultra-conservative Senator Marco Rubio (R, FL) on the Earned Income Tax Credit, agreeing with Rubio that it should be expanded to give more assistance to single workers with no children. The camera switched to Rubio, who maintained what must have been the most difficult poker face in recent political history. Getting caught by surprise bipartisanship will hurt him with the knee-jerk base.

Much of the rest of the speech struck me as the usual blah-blah. He promoted his policies with the standard assortment of inspiring individual stories.

My heart did go out to Sergeant Cory Remsburg, who was nearly killed by an IED in Afghanistan. He is undergoing the slow and painful process of rehabilitation. At the SOTU he was also undergoing use as a stage prop. There’s a fine line between being celebrated and being exploited, but yes, the White House went over it. Solid bipartisanship here, though. The Republicans have been shamelessly waving “the troops” in our faces since the dark ages. What truly frosts my heretical ass, though, is that Sgt. Remsburg could have stayed home.

My ultimate response to all the hoopla is this, and journalists take note: A press conference (or speech) means being lied to in public. “Access” means being lied to in private. At least with access you get to expense out a meal.


High Prices Coming Down the Pipeline

 “Eventually, the politics of energy has to surrender to the physics of energy.” Randy Udall

Two pieces of news have come together in my mind recently. One is the Vermont Public Service Board approval of a new natural gas pipeline through Addison County. The other is a Wall Street Journal article about investments in shale gas production.

The PSB approval and pipeline story is straightforward. Vermont Gas, a subsidiary of Canadian Gaz Metro, is extending its pipeline from Chittenden County and the population center around Burlington southward through Addison County. Phase 2 of the project will have the pipeline cross the narrows of Lake Champlain and serve the Ticonderoga paper mill in New York. In theory, Phase 3 will bring natural gas to the city of Rutland around 2020.

There are objections to the pipeline by many residents of Addison County, generally on two grounds: First, that this will encourage the use of hydrofractured (“fracked”) gas, which is controversial due to its threat to ground water and the general environment near drilling sites. Second, that it will detour us from the pursuit of renewable energy and energy efficiency. A number of people simply don’t want a natural gas pipeline on or near their land.

The proponents of the pipeline argue that it will bring cheap energy to western Vermont, with the resulting economic benefits. Phase 2, they say, will bring far cleaner, cheaper energy to the Ticonderoga plant, with resulting environmental and economic benefits.

A sidebar on shale gas production:

So-called conventional oil and gas generally reside in underground sandstone formations, like sponges made of rock. The oil and gas are in the holes in the sponge (porosity) and the holes are connected to some extent (permeability) so that the oil and/or gas can flow through the sponge, much the same way that water can soak through from one end of a sponge to the other. These conventional deposits can be miles across and hundreds of feet thick.

Shale oil and shale gas deposits can be described the same way, but with different measurements. A shale deposit might have one one-thousandth the porosity and permeability of a sandstone deposit. A shale formation like the Bakken in the northern Midwest covers thousands of square miles but is only ten to maybe 150 feet thick. To imagine the scale, picture a layer of plastic wrap over a couple of football fields. This distribution means two things. One is that there is a lot less energy per horizontal acre in a shale field. The other is that the oil and gas won’t travel from one part of the field to another without a lot of help.

Horizontal drilling is the process of controlling the drill bit so that after going straight down it curves sideways and follows the thin shale formation. Drillers make a number of these horizontal boreholes out from a central drilling point in order to get access to a large area of shale.

Hydrofracturing is the process of injecting a mixture of water, chemicals, and then sand at extremely high pressures to blast open the cracks and pores in the shale. The sand is a “proppant”, keeping the blasted shale from collapsing back on itself. These two operations are an expensive proposition.

A horizontally drilled, hydrofractured well has a relatively short productive life. After a massive initial rush of production, output could drop by 40-50% in the first year. It might drop another 30-40% in the second year, and 20% or more in the third. The key to maintaining production levels is drilling intensity – quickly drilling more wells to replace declining ones. This is also an expensive proposition.

The Wall Street Journal Article (paywalled), as quoted in the ASPO-USA Peak Oil Review, casts doubt on the cheap energy claim by Vermont Gas. There has been a huge rush into shale gas drilling over the past decade. With that rush came a huge rush of natural gas, driving the price down to the historic lows of the past few years. Those low prices, bottoming out below $2 per thousand cubic feet (Mcf), were below the cost of production. Shale gas exploration companies lost tens of billions annually. As far as I can tell each company’s strategy was to hold on to the mineral leases and produce at a loss until their competitors went out of business. Then the remaining companies could clean up as supply declined and gas prices rose. The industry has been running on continued injections of investor cash.

Recently the investors have been getting cold feet. Here’s the key quotation from the WSJ article:

    “Since 2008, deep-pocketed foreign investors have subsidized the U.S. energy boom, as oil and gas companies spent far more money on leasing and drilling than they made selling crude and natural gas. But the rivers of foreign cash are running dry for U.S. drillers. In 2013, international companies spent $3.4 billion for stakes in U.S. shale-rock formations, less than half of what they invested in 2012 and a tenth of their spending in 2011, according to data from IHS Herold, a research and consulting firm. It is a sign of leaner times for the cash-hungry companies that have revived American energy output. The value of deals involving U.S. energy producers plunged 48% this year from 2012, to $47 billion, the first annual decline since 2008. So U.S. oil and gas producers have started to slash spending.”

                              -- (The Wall Street Journal, Jan 2)

Remember that the key to low prices is continued high production and the key to continued high production is drilling intensity. The key to drilling intensity is investment, and that is going away, dropping by a factor of ten in just two years. Investment will only come back when the price of natural gas rises enough to make shale production profitable. Industry analysts argue endlessly about what the breakeven price of shale gas is for various fields, but my general takeaway is that it could mean a doubling of wholesale prices.

Back in Vermont, the residents and businesses of Chittenden, Addison, and Rutland Counties are being promised a bounty of cheap natural gas. The geology of shale gas dictates the economics, and the economics, via investor flight, indicates that this is a false promise. Just about the time that consumers find themselves hooked up to the pipeline and paying for their new appliances the price will start heading for a profitable range. The politics of energy will surrender to the physics of energy before Rutland ever sees a cubic foot of natural gas.


Snow Peeve

Ok, so this one is personal and limited in scope. Limited, that is, to anyone who drives in the snow belt. Southerners may now go outside and enjoy the nice weather.

A week ago I was driving on the interstate, just after our ice storm. The highway crews had done a bang up job, and I was cruising along behind a minivan at a decent distance at 65 mph. Two pieces of ice, each about a half an inch thick and over two feet square, flipped up off the roof of the van and rotated rapidly for a moment around an invisible axle about eight feet in the air. Then each piece broke into four and crashed to the pavement just in front of my bumper. I don’t think the driver even noticed. If I had been a few feet closer….well, let’s not think about that.

The other day, after a moderate snowfall, I was driving up a secondary highway and saw a car-sized block of snow approach me in the opposite lane. It had wheels like a car and a small porthole cut in the snow in the left front, through which an idiot was peering intently. There was no other break in the snow through which an intelligent human being could see the road, signs, pedestrians, obstacles, or vehicles.

It reminded me of a number of incidents in the past where my car was suddenly engulfed in a momentary blinding whiteout caused by a cubic yard of snow leaving the roof of the vehicle in front of me. Did you know that a car going 65 mph would travel the length of a football field in the few seconds that it would take to get through a snow dump like that and clear the windshield? Anything closer than the opposing 1 yard line would be invisible.

You are undoubtedly way ahead of me on the moral to these stories. Clean off your damned car. The whole car. All the glass. Yes, the roof and the trunk lid too. I know, you’re late. So am I. I am late every time I walk towards my car – it’s congenital. I still take 3 ½ minutes to get my car into a state where it is neither a threat to me nor to others. We drive through this world with a one in 10,000 chance of dying in our vehicles. No need to shorten the odds.

Peeve vented. Thank you.


Seasonal Assortment 

Your Minor Heretic has been busy lately with various projects intended to make him a living. Simultaneously, the inspiration to write a 1200 word essay on something has been generally absent. Here are a few short takes on topical subjects, in no particular order.

There has been much ado in the media, especially the right wing media, about a crime called “The Knockout Game.” The idea is that gangs of black teenagers pick out a white victim and one of them walks up and sucker punches the person. You can imagine, if you haven’t actually witnessed it, the media hype. This is now apparently a huge epidemic of black-on-white violence, except that apparently it isn’t when a reporter actually does some investigating.

What it reminds me of is something told to me by a guy about my age at a party I was at about 35 years ago. I had just met him and out of nowhere he started telling me about a pastime he and his friends enjoyed called “broomsticking n----rs.” It involved a group of white teenagers riding around in the back of a pickup truck with a broomstick, picking out a black victim, and hitting that person with a broomstick as they drove by. If the guy with the broomstick dropped it he was thrown out of the truck and had to go retrieve it, facing the wrath of the injured party. Aside from the use of a weapon and the added cowardice of doing it from a moving truck, it was much the same as the knockout game. At the time I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe that the guy was serious. I think the look on my face told him what he needed to know because he found other people to talk to. I guess stupid, angry, bored young men are, and always have been, stupid, angry, bored young men.

I was pleased to see that Federal Judge Richard Leon found that there was actually a constitutional amendment in between the one about quartering troops in people’s houses and the one about not incriminating oneself, and that going on a fishing expedition is only constitutional if it involves a rod, a hook, and bait. He ruled that the NSA’s mass collection of data was unconstitutional and noted that the government had failed to prove that this method of collection was actually effective. He called the program “almost Orwellian”, winning him the Minor Heretic’s Understatement of the Year Award.

I would also like to note that the author of the so-called USA Patriot Act, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., stated publicly that James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, should be fired and prosecuted for lying to congress about the extent of NSA surveillance. I seem to remember recommending that myself a few posts back.

Perhaps the lumbering beast of public opinion is raising its head, blinking, and saying, “Everything? You mean, like everything I do on my phone and the internet? As in ‘everything’? Wait a sec….”

On the seasonal front, I must point out that Paul Bibeau at Goblinbooks nails the “black Santa” issue. Saint Nick and Jesus would both get the squinty eye from the TSA. Be sure to check out the link in his article from the Saint Nicholas Center. Some forensic scientists x-rayed the actual skull of St. Nicholas and did a reconstruction of what he probably looked like. It’s the jolly old elf as you have never considered him.

A thought about the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia: Given the homophobic tendencies and oppressive laws of that nation, I’m hoping for a touch of 1936 and 1968. Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin summer Olympics, a kick in the teeth for racists all over the world, but especially for Herr Schickelgruber. In 1968, at the Mexico summer Olympics, medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the podium while our national anthem was played. Along with Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, they all wore symbolic items to make statements about racism, poverty, and solidarity. They were sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, but the gesture had impact.

Any success by homosexual athletes would be a smack upside the head of Russian bigots. I’d like to see athletes from all nations make gestures of solidarity with those on the sharp side of Russian law. Perhaps they could go Godwin on the Russians and all wear pink triangles during the opening parade. Rainbow emblems on the podium would also be appropriate. The IOC would have a tough time sanctioning every last athlete in the games.

Happy Saturnalia from your Minor Heretic. Celebrate Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun") and party like a Roman.


A Room in Philadelphia 

My memory of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is understandably foggy. I was a couple of days short of two years old when he died. What I remember is my mother crying, my father grim and silent, and the funeral on television. We watched it on our black and white console TV. The one clear image in my mind is the coffin on the horse drawn caisson; the wagon wheels and the dark box. I didn’t know what it was, that the body of a man was in there, but in my infantile way I understood that it was a Big Thing and a Sad Thing. Only much later did I realize that the hopes of millions of people rolled away in that box. Years after that came the understanding of the mixed and nuanced legacy of that man.

Still, it is my ur-memory of sadness and loss. Given my preoccupation with politics, it is a good one to have. The outrage of that murder goes beyond the death of an individual. It was a vicious blow to the core of the nation.

A couple of years ago I visited Philadelphia. I went to some of the usual tourist stops, including Independence Hall. I went into a room on the end of the building, the old Senate chamber. The National Park ranger there told us of some of the history that occurred in that room. The most striking thing for me was this: In 1796, George Washington and John Adams were in that room for Adams to be sworn in as the second president of the United States. The ranger pointed out that when Adams took the oath, it was the first time in recorded history that the executive power in a nation state was transferred without violence or inheritance. No invasion, no assassination, no coercion, no king, queen or prince. Just a Virginia farmer handing over power to a Massachusetts lawyer. And so it has gone, despite Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy.

This is why the politically charged gun brandishing we witness these days makes me mad as hell. A certain group of conservatives refers darkly to “Second Amendment solutions.” Fuck those guys. They are idiots, in the original Greek sense of the term – those who don’t pay attention to politics. The peaceful transition of power, as corrupt as it has become, is as important to our well-being as water and food.

Ask the average Libyan about the use of firearms in politics, or a Somali or Yemeni. Ask anywhere in the world where a group of armed men has decided that the election results weren’t to their liking. The results are predictably chaotic, terrifying, and lethal. The armed are ultimately as vulnerable as the unarmed. Hobbes had the perfect words for it:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is what we now call a failed state.

I disliked Ronald Reagan. He was a spiteful, small minded, delusional ignoramus with an aw-shucks persona so polished he fooled even himself. His sole advantage was that he was a second rate actor in the political world of fourth rate actors. His brand of emotional fantasy politics, undergirded with the coded racism that now informs the Tea Party, was the beginning of the post Buckley v Valeo ruination of American politics. Nevertheless, when he was shot I was mightily pissed off. I don’t like it when anyone is shot, but the shooting of an elected official is a denial of rights of the entire nation. It was a shooting of the basic civil rights of each of us. I didn’t like Reagan or his policies, but the fact that he gained and occupied the office through the flawed, yet peaceful methodology of election linked us all to him.

There are any number of theories about who shot Kennedy and why. We’ll probably never know. Those facts are less important to me than the legacy of his death. After JFK (and RFK and MLK) everyone in public life looks over their shoulders. The October Surprise of 1980 and the judicial coup of 2000 were technically effective, but they lacked the edge of fear. Despite all the surveillance and protection afforded the President, he, like the rest of us, depends on the good will of his fellow citizens. At the very least, he depends on the unwillingness of angry men to take that last step.

Maybe that’s the root of it, the thing that makes the Oklahoma City bombing loom larger in my mind than the attacks of September 11th. Timothy McVeigh was supposed to be one of us. We can sustain an attack from outside. We can face that together. An attack from the inside makes us doubt the good will of our neighbors. Disappointed losers pollute our politics with violent symbolism and the dehumanization of the other. A lunatic fringe denies the legitimacy of the President. Certain factions refuse the possibility of political compromise. The legacy of a handshake in a room in Philadelphia is under threat.