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Time is ripe to grow a crop of cheap fuel

October 25, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

Commentary

Like half of American households, I heat with natural gas, which means like half of American households, I can look forward to being gutted and filleted by the energy markets over the next five or six months.

Remember all those commercials three or four years ago encouraging everyone to switch to "clean, cheap natural gas?" Well, something happened on the way to the "cheap."

Now, the experts predict natural gas bills will be 50 percent to 100 percent higher this winter. Sort of makes a mockery of the term "budget plan."

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This isn't because there is a shortage of natural gas. There isn't. In fact, the inventories are high. But like gasoline, the retail price isn't based on the actual cost of the fuel that's heating your house or propelling your automobile. Because that would make sense.

No, the price isn't based on the current price, it's based on what a bunch of idiots in the futures markets THINK the price will be several months from now. That's why the price of gasoline at the convenience store will go up every time two clouds come together off the coast of Africa, even though it's the same gasoline that was in their tanks the day before, which was selling for a dime cheaper.

So if some mal-dressed, neck-scratching geek from Evanston, who happens to be a futures trader, gets the idea in his head that underground moles will develop a taste for crude and start drinking up the supply, it's the normal, sane segments of society who will pay the price.

Everyone likes to blame China for sucking up the supply, but last year China imported only slightly more oil than Germany, and its total consumption wasn't all that much more than tiny Japan's, or less than a third of the United States. But it MIGHT start using a lot more oil, that's the point.

This, of course, hasn't been easy on the energy companies, either. They have been forced to accept massively higher profits based, not on their actual production costs, but on conjecture.

You know they're hurting, because they are running ads urging everyone to conserve fuel. They do this with all the conviction and sincerity of those Philip Morris ads urging cigarette smokers to quit. But I suppose they feel they have to profit while they can, because sooner or later the futures traders will noodle it through that $60-a-barrel oil is unsustainable and the prices will come tumbling back down to reasonable levels and there will be another oil bust, sure as there will be another sunset.

In the meantime, what are the rest of the normal, sane segments of society supposed to do, start heating our homes with, ha ha, corn?

What? You're kidding.

Yes, according to a story in The Herald-Mail last week, corn-burning stoves are one of the most popular items.

I don't know, it just sounds a little weird to me. I've heard of people being so hungry they've had to eat tree bark, but never so cold that they've had to burn grain. I mean really, how many BTUs can there be in a box of Rice-a-Roni?

According to the corn lobby, a pound of corn has almost the same heating capability as a pound of wood. And they say it makes sense, seeing as how ethanol derived from corn can power cars.

I know. But it's still corn. What am I supposed to do, drive up to Martin's Grain Elevators and say, "fill 'er up with Silver Queen?"

And corn-burning stoves seem as if they would have some problems of their own. First, everyone knows that burning tassel fuel contributes to the depletion of the cornzone layer. And look, I might pay an arm and a leg for natural gas, but I will never know the embarrassment of admitting to a shivering house guest that a mouse ate my fuel supply.

Still, I gave it some thought. Our House of Many Mysteries has three chimneys but no discernible fireplaces or places for a stove. At some point in its history, the house must have burned something, and a lot of it. There are spots in the basement that could pass for either coal chutes or woodchuck damage, I'm not really sure which.

So I might be able to knock a hole in one of the chimneys and install a corn-burning stove. But I have a teenager, and I strongly suspect that no household with teens could tolerate such an appliance.

I can just hear the fathers now: "All right you wise guys, for the last time: NO POPCORN!"

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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