Politics & Policy

Carbon Americans vs. Ethanol Americans

I side with the folks who power our world.

Do carbon limits make good presidential politics?

I debated this question with John McIntyre, the founder of the excellent RealClearPolitics website, on Larry Kudlow’s radio program last Saturday. McIntyre says John McCain can use the issue to get moderate environmentalists to swing his way and thereby, on balance, pick up more votes.

I don’t think so. Whenever I hear about carbon limits I can’t help but think about all those swing voters who live on top of coal deposits. I’m one of them. (And yes, I really am a swing voter.) Every time we’ve purchased a house we’ve had to sign a mine-subsidence waiver. They’re very common in western Pennsylvania. If some old coal mine suddenly collapses and sucks our house down with it, we’re out of luck. We take the loss.

And it’s not just the coal under our feet. It’s all the stuff that goes along with it. Coal, like other energy sources, is a “master commodity.” We use it and oil to produce the energy that will transform other commodities into products. In order to turn bauxite into aluminum, you need energy. In order to turn iron ore into steel, you need energy. So the steel’s made where the coal is, and in many cases the aluminum’s made there, too. And because these products are heavy, that’s where the railroads are, and the barges, locks, and damns.

Heavy industries cluster together, and they very often do so on the parts of the earth’s surface that cover huge deposits of carbon. The masses of Irish, Italian, and Slavic immigrants who swarmed to these patches of earth, either to dig, refine, or employ the energy below ground, are what I call Carbon Americans. They work very hard with their hands for all the rest of us.

Our church in (bitter, gun-and-God-clinging) McKeesport has an undercroft that was hand-dug by the coal miners who helped found the church. These original Carbon Americans used shovels. But today quite a few Carbon Americans use drills, harvesting carbon in liquid form (oil) or gaseous form (natural gas). Some Carbon Americans make a living switching carbon products from one form to another, for instance from solid coal to a liquid, pumpable fuel. Carbon Americans power our world.

The Ethanol Americans are a different breed. For these folks energy just “is.” They don’t know much about where it comes from. They don’t know anyone who digs it and they don’t see barges full of it chugging up and down their rivers.

With the exception of the giant agri-business managers who run the farms that produce the precursor grains to make the ethanol, most Ethanol Americans live on the coasts and work in clean, well-lighted offices where they read and write documents. They are venture capitalists who invest in alternative fuels. They are government planners who subsidize the venture capitalists. They are non-profit and foundation executives who fund the pro-ethanol propaganda efforts. They are the media workers who propagate the propaganda. These people are in power in our world.

The whole carbon debate takes place well above my level of scientific knowledge. I simply don’t know whether or not global warming is caused by humans. If it is, I don’t know the solutions. None of us do with any certainty.

I just want the powers that be who want to push carbon into the ground and food into our gas tanks to be clear about who in the short-run they’re helping and who they’re hurting. Carbon Americans are no small potatoes.


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