Friday Mailbag: Readers ask about wind power, Kommer vs. Gallion, Burgum's handling of the pandemic, OPEC, and tax revenues
MINOT, N.D. — We made it to another mailbag Friday, my friends.
How are you holding up? Are you getting the quarantine blues? Is your hair starting to look as weird as mine for want of professional attention? One thing I've learned from the pandemic is that balding, middle-aged men should not have long hair.
Also, a tragic misadventure while trimming has resulted in me shaving off my beard entirely. It's coming back, but suffice it to say that I'm glad I'm not going outside much these days.
I got some excellent feedback from you readers this week.
Remember, if you'd like to participate, send your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. There has been a significant response to this column, and I can't get to every message, but I'm reading them. I promise. Keep trying.
The messages may be edited for brevity and clarity.
Now, to the questions!
Brian writes: Hi Rob, great article on the wind turbines . I could not agree with you more. Also, the big thing that NO ONE wants to talk about is that the blades from the turbines are not recyclable and go directly into landfills. And both wind and solar farms often have to kill forest land to be installed in the first place. And they only last 10-20 years, and then what?
I've been writing about wind power a lot lately, and the impetus is that I believe we're coming to something of an inflection point on renewable energy. Wind turbines and solar panels and biomass plants simply aren't what their supporters told us they would be. They're not reliable. Absent massive government subsidy, they're not a cheap alternative to more traditional sources of power.
Also, as Brian notes, it's not at all clear that they're good for the environment. He notes that wind turbine blades are cluttering up landfills, and he's right . He's a little off on the lifespan of a wind turbine — it's more like 20 to 25 years — but he's not that far off.
Brian urged me to watch the new Michael Moore-produced documentary called "Planet of the Humans," and not only did I watch it, but I also ended up writing a column about it ( with the whole film embedded in it, if you're curious ). It was eye-opening. Even a long-time skeptical of renewable energy endeavors like wind and solar, like me, was shocked to see just how wasteful and absurd the push toward renewables have been.
I'll not argue that there is no future for things like wind and solar and biomass. Still, I do think those energy sources are crammed into our markets because of politics and, more cynically, a thirst for short-term profits at the expense of long-term stability.
A great rule of thumb is that products or services which work, and make sense in the marketplace, don't typically need to recruit armies of lobbyists and politicians to make people use them.
Rich writes: If I'm hearing this right, Kommer is now claiming she is the victim coming out of the audit? It may have been a mistake, but $850,000 is no small change.
Rich is referring to my podcast interview with Gov. Doug Burgum's Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer. During the interview, we chatted about her recent exoneration from alleged criminal charges related to the handling of a new state logo and brand. Those charges emanated from political wrangling around first-term State Auditor Josh Gallion and his aggressive approach to his job.
I don't believe Kommer was claiming to be a victim during our interview. I think she was expressing frustration about how the situation was handled, and rightfully so. A thorough review found no malfeasance. Nobody was stealing money from the state. A procurement process was handled in a manner that wasn't quite as transparent as it could have been. That's something worth of flagging in an audit, but it's not worthy of criminal proceedings, and Gallion's insistence on routinely referring his office's findings for criminal investigations is something from which he needs to back away.
I have been a supporter of Gallion and his approach to auditor's job, but in the Kommer situation and elsewhere he's been fighting a sort of proxy political battle with the Legislature over the scope of the powers of his office, and that's not fair to the people he's auditing.
Kurt asks: Why is Gov. Burgum or any other governor not taking into account the massive deaths that will occur down the road from the consequences (poverty, drug, and alcohol abuse, etc., etc.) of the massive unemployment this shutdown will cause?
It's unfair to say Burgum is not taking those things into account, but since it's not my job to speak for him, I asked his spokesman Mike Nowatzki to comment. "Gov. Burgum has emphasized repeatedly that this is about saving lives AND livelihoods," he told me (the emphasis was his). "Every decision has been made with full consideration of both the health/safety and economic consequences, and will continue to be as we work toward a North Dakota Smart Restart."
Burgum has been balancing the need for a government response to the pandemic with a desire to keep those policies from doing too much damage to our economy and our society. Other states have clamped down with broad and draconian orders, but Burgum has wielded his executive powers much more precisely.
You can read a list of every executive order Burgum has issued in response to the COVID-19 outbreak right here . There have been 39 orders issued so far. Importantly, nearly 30% of those orders are amendments to previous orders. That speaks to a leader who is listening and doing his best to fine-tune his policies as this situation unfolds.
At the end of this, we're going to find that Burgum made some mistakes. We're going to find that pretty much everybody made some mistakes. Who wouldn't have? When the finger-pointing starts, perhaps remember that the people who made the policies had to do so in real-time, with limited information, and certainly without the benefit of hindsight.
Clay asks: I frequent your blog and love your take on the energy industry. Something being tossed around a lot recently is the potential of crude import restrictions from OPEC (Saudi Arabia) to bolster domestic crude prices. Recently, Sen. Kevin Cramer made the news asking President Trump to restrict a number of tankers from unloading in the U.S. Given the president's America First campaign slogan and the implications this flooding of the market has on local oil producers, especially in N.D., I was wondering what your and Sen. Cramer's take on this is. Obviously, a restoration of demand is the only way to truly fix the price drop, but the question stands: Why should we stand to allow OPEC to bully the U.S. oil industry, exercising their ability to flood the market as organized nations, rather than private companies?
I sent Clay's question to Cramer. "We should not allow any nation to bully the United States over oil, especially a petrostate like Saudi Arabia. American energy dominance has been a defining characteristic of President Trump's time in office," he told me. "It's important to national security and must be protected, which is why I am working with the President, Energy Secretary Brouillette, and global allies like Canada to defend our oil producers from bad actors."
We discussed this issue in depth during a recent podcast interview as well, and it's worth your time to listen if you're interested in this subject:
I've been a proponent of free and unfettered trade pretty much since I first started paying attention to politics. I've been deeply skeptical of Trump-era Republicans who have abandoned those principles in favor of more protectionist policies.
I'm still very much a free trader, but I think situations like OPEC (and our dealings with China) illustrate that a certain amount of government intervention is necessary when America's free markets must interact with state-owned companies and industries from other parts of the world. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia can manipulate global oil markets because they have state-owned oil companies (Aramco and Rosneft, respectively), which essentially control production within their borders. President Trump doesn't have the power to turn off American oil production (whatever our mercurial leader may think of the scope of his executive powers on a given day) because the government doesn't own American oil companies.
Nor should they be. But at times, it behooves our government to take action to protect our private companies from their state-owned competitors.
David writes: Mr. Port — Interesting and timely piece. One thought on the individual and corporate income tax receipts: Even if the state had not pushed back the tax filing deadline before the end of March (I don't recall when that announcement had been made), wouldn't a lot of people and companies simply held off on paying taxes that would have been due by April 15th? That means that the 2018 and 2019 data had these receipts, but they would not have come in for 2020.
David was responding to my column about North Dakota's general fund revenue report for March, which looked pretty normal, all things considered.
That's going to change, of course, but one take away is that at least our state's finances were healthy before the pandemic drove everything into the ditch.
Something I noted was that income taxes — both corporate and individual — were pretty low in the month compared to March in previous years. David rightly notes that this due, at least in some part, to the government moving the filing deadlines around.
The state takes in income tax year-round. Those of you who get a paycheck see the withholdings. But the spring filings every year do result in a spike in revenues, for obvious reasons, and moving those deadlines will change the timeline on the receipts.
Though we're still likely in for a decline, because people are losing their jobs and businesses are closing.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com .