Thursday, June 3, 2010

Summer in Rural Will County, the BP Oil Spill, and Agriculture's use of Fossil Fuels

Nothing says summer in rural Will County like the smell of freshly baled hay.   Warm summer nights combined with the sound of hay racks pulling in the drive will always remind of my childhood growing up on a Will County farm.

The hay baled in Will County is used for a variety of agriculture industries.  Some is sold to local horse farms and stables.  Some is used to feed cattle.  Some is sold to distributers who make a living buying hay, transporting it, and selling hay where it is needed around the country.  No matter what the hay is used for, it takes a lot of physical labor and gasoline or diesel fuel to go from a standing grass or alfalfa field to a rack of baled hay.  

The hay must be cut, then raked over so it can fully dry, and then baled:

Yesterday I was listening to the Ed Schultz Radio Show while the host and guests discussed the BP Oil Spill.  One caller discussed her view that all Americans share blame for the oil spill because we all buy oil products which produces demand and a market for the oil.  I have to agree with that caller in a way because when we go to fill our cars with gasoline, we know the gas did not just magically arrive at the station.  It had to be harvested, refined, transported, and pumped into the gas tanks under the pump.  All of these steps required the use of fuel and energy.  We all know there is a risk of an oil spill at each step in the process.  

The same caller suggested we all do one thing each week to reduce our use of fossil fuels.  The example the caller gave was to not eat meat one day a week: "Meatless Monday."  The caller explained that it takes a lot of fossil fuels to produce meat.   When the caller said this, I instantly thought of the hay baling I watched during the past weekend.   I thought of not only the oil used in baling the hay, but also of the diesel and gasoline used by the tractors that cut and rake the hay.  I thought of the diesel used by the trucks that haul the cattle from the cow-calf operator to the sale barn to the feedlot and then finally to market or the slaughterhouse.  It takes a lot of fuel to produce meat in this country, although the rising interest in local agriculture may shorten the miles meat travels from farm to plate.  

The BP Oil Spill has also prompted more calls for the US to develop its capacity to produce green energy.  In a speech at Carnegie Mellon University, President Obama called the nation to action, stating:

"The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future.  Now, that means continuing our unprecedented effort to make everything from our homes and businesses to our cars and trucks more energy-efficient.  It means tapping into our natural gas reserves, and moving ahead with our plan to expand our nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants.  It means rolling back billions of dollars of tax breaks to oil companies so we can prioritize investments in clean energy research and development.  

But the only way the transition to clean energy will ultimately succeed is if the private sector is fully invested in this future -- if capital comes off the sidelines and the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs is unleashed.  And the only way to do that is by finally putting a price on carbon pollution.   
Now, many businesses have already embraced this idea because it provides a level of certainty about the future.  And for those that face transition costs, we can help them adjust.  But if we refuse to take into account the full costs of our fossil fuel addiction -- if we don’t factor in the environmental costs and the national security costs and the true economic costs -- we will have missed our best chance to seize a clean energy future."
Full speech:
Under such cap and trade legislation, farmers may be able to utilize conservation methods to earn income. Others argue the legislation will increase farmers' operating expenses.
At any rate, I hope the research and development money and capital do come off the sidelines and get involved in developing agricultural equipment that runs on solar and other forms of clean energy. That hopefully would reduce imput costs for farmers---if there were tax credits for purchasing the most likely high cost new technology-- while also decreasing emissions.