Minnesotans to Pay Lower Natural Gas Prices for Now

September 30, 2006

More evidence of a healthy supply of Natural Gas for this winter… the Strib has a story running today talking about how natural gas prices are expected to be 49% lower this October versus last year at the same time. This is as long as temperatures stay normal, of course.

As one more hint of the predicament we’re soon to be facing, though, this sentance ended the article:

“We’re dealing with a finite resource here,” Chavez said, “so we should conserve and use our energy efficiently as time goes on.”

For those of us that rely on natural gas to keep from freezing in the winter, this is more good news, even if it’s of a temporary nature. An “Indian Summer” for natural gas, maybe?

The Road to What’s Next

September 29, 2006

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks contemplating the issues facing all of us, how things will play out, and how my life choices fit into the puzzle. 2006 has turned out to be an interesting year both for me personally and for the world as a whole.

On the global scale, the biggest issues have really been non-issues: The Israeli-Lebanon war ran out of steam before expanding into a regional conflict; the 2006 hurricane season has been a non-starter in terms of it’s affect on oil prices, and while the US economy has been slowing down (along with housing prices), it’s simply been a slowdown and not a ‘crash’ that some economic doomsayers have been predicting. The net result of all this has been a reduction of gasoline prices, a forecast of lower natural gas heating bills for the winter, and more bargains to be had at the shops. We have been getting bombarded with both email and snail mail offering bargains, special events and deep discount coupons (40% is not uncommon). I’m sure that others are experiencing the same thing.

On a personal level, the two main things that have changed for me have been our move to a new house, and my taking a personal inventory of my life. The new house we built is in the suburbs, cost way too much (lucky me for buying in at the top of the real estate bubble), and is otherwise a fairly standard modern house, albeit with some energy-saving features. The main benefit is that it’s much closer (less than a mile, in one case) to other members of the family, and it’s gotten us out of what was a toxic neighborhood full of self-important, snobbish people. It’s odd for me to be writing about the transition to a low-energy future while still living in a high-energy present, but that’s the path I’ve chosen, and I think it will hopefully add a different perspective on how the changes in society will affect us. There are plenty of other people who have struck out for a more simple life already, (Kevin from Cryptogon & Steven Lagavulin of Deconsumption among others). I salute their efforts and wish them well; I’m just not ready to make that change yet, and neither is the rest of my family. I’m not willing to sunder my family just to ‘walk the walk,’ so I will stay where I’m at for the near future, and attempt to dodge any claims of hypocrisy while doing so.

The second personal issue I’ve been dealing with is the overall direction of my life. I have a good life; loving wife, two healthy kids, good job, nice house, etc, but I have been getting more and more unhappy with living the “American Dream.” I’m not a pack rat, but I still have a lot of stuff. The old adage about stuff owning you as much as you own it is true, and I’ve been trying to get rid of as much of the old stuff as possible while only acquiring new stuff that’s durable, lasting, and that will still be of use 20 years from now. Out goes the personal electronics, novels, and collectibles, in come stuff relating to gardening, canning, bikes and brewing. My main battle is determining how to ‘withdraw’ from some of the more pernicious parts of our society while still remaining a part of it. I am trying to eat less pre-packaged, unhealthy crap, cut way down on the amount of TV I watch, and the hardest of all, but down on my internet usage. I lived without television for a few years without any real hardship, but I think I would go through severe withdrawl if I had to walk away from computers. I don’t know that I’m an ‘internet addict’, but I get a lot of my news, entertainment and shopping online, and I’m trying to reduce that somewhat.

There is a point to this ramble, trust me. I’m trying to do a stealthy downshifting of my personal life, for I’ve seen the future, and it comes with a lot of paradigm-shifting and plain old hard work. I could be better positioned to take advantage of that, but circumstances prevent a radical change, so I’m looking for a way to contribute to the peak-oil/sustainability movement that works within the framework of my life as it stands right now. This blog is one part of it, and I’m hoping to explore some other parts over the next week or so.

Once we pass the tipping point of the peak-oil plateau, we will have to come to grips with the idea that what constitutes a ‘good standard of life’ must change. Jeff Vail has a great quote that frames the main issue well:

Rigoberta Manchu Tu, an indigenous Mayan activist, commented that the US economy is predicated upon the exploitation of other, poorer economies. She further stated that wealth in the rest of the world necessarily required poverty in the US.

As the price of oil and other commodities rises, a lot of the trappings that we have come to associate with a decent standard of life will be unattainable to many of us. Things like two cars, or 25 pairs of shoes, or even a house with 1 bathroom per occupant may very well become luxuries that only a select few can afford. First, we need to prepare ourselves for this, and then we need to find ways to help others. Many writers are prediciting rioting, insurrections, and worse when this comes to pass., but it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’m hoping to start a dialogue on ways people can proacively work to mitigate some of the worst possible outcomes. I don’t think we can avoid unpleasantness altogether and, quite frankly, most people won’t change without first being hit square between the eyes with a 2×4. There will be plenty of challenges ahead; mass change will require mass effort, and that means greenpunks/peakniks/environmentalists will have to venture outside of their normal comfort zones and engage groups of people that they otherwise would avoid like the plague. It will also require trying to find a message that will appeal to a wide audience, and that means limiting the rhetoric that fires up some of the more strident greenies out there. Baby steps before big ones…

Anyway, that’s the premise I’ve been working on. I hope you’ll find something worthy of your time in the coming posts.

The real reason why gas prices are plummeting

September 26, 2006

The USA has made it through the summer. We’ve gotten a much milder start to the 2006 hurricane season than was predicted, and the “Summer Driving Season” is over, apparently meaning that we will use much, much less gasoline that we do from May through August. In response, gasoline prices have sunk faster than a mob informant being thrown into the East River wearing concrete galoshes. There’s been a lot of talk concerning the source of this drop… everything from “Peak Oil is a garbage theory” to “Demand Destruction in action.”

The real reason? I’m willing to bet that it’s blatant manipulation of the commodities market.

This cannot and will not last forever, so enjoy the cheap gas while you can, and get your Christmas shopping done early. There’s also a drop in Natural Gas prices that will mean a cheaper start to Minnesota’s winter heating season.

Being a cynic, I’m guessing that the window for reality rearing it’s ugly head once again will start around December 1, depending on how cold it gets across the country. Perhaps we’ll be blessed with another mild winter… or then again, maybe not.

Hat tip: Steven Lagavulin at Deconsumption

A Peek at News of the Future

September 18, 2006

Project Censored has released their list of ‘Top 25 Censored Stories of 2007‘. This list will give us an idea about the top headlines that we’ll (maybe) see next year, depending on which special interest groups out there manage to squelch stories that are damaging to them.

Of particular interest to me, and hopefully readers of this blog are:

#3 “Oceans of the World in Extreme Danger”

#4 “Homelessness and Hunger Increasing in the US”

#11 “Dangers of Genetically Modified Food Confirmed”

#13 “New Evidence Establishes Dangers of Roundup”

#20 “Bottled Water” A Global Environmental Problem”

Some of these stories will no doubt make it into the mainstream media. How they will be spun and presented is another thing, of course. I, for one, will do stop using herbicides on my lawn. I don’t use many now, but after hearing a report this morning on MPR about home pesticide use, and how some of the toxins find their way into kid’s bodies, I’m quitting cold turkey. My new weed-fighter will be arriving in a week or two.

John Michael Greer on Energy and the Future of the US

September 14, 2006

One of the things I like about John Michael Greer’s articles on peak oil and transition to an low-energy future is that he always takes a moderate view of things. His latest article, “Energy Predicaments and Prospects,” is another such article. We’re not in danger of heading back to the middle ages anytime soon. We’ll deal with a lot less power usage, and a lot of our homes up here in the Great White North may be unlivable without natural gas heating, but civilization will adapt and survive.

A forward-thinking suburban city council here in the metro would do well to start mandating smaller, more energy-efficient housing for at least some of the new house construction that takes place around here. They’d also change the zoning laws so that people can walk to schools, shops and other places they need to go to on a daily basis. Finally, open space preservation is a must. Between the need for agricultural land, and land for managed woodlots, we’ll need to either keep some exiting parkland/farmland wild, or we’ll get to experience the joy of trying to re-forest some of the McMansion developments at some point in the future.

I am expecting wood and other biomass energy to become more important parts of the heating solution in Minnesota as years go on. Getting a head start on some harvestable trees would be an excellent idea. In the meantime, they’d provide excellent homes for the local wildlife, and maybe even make great bikeways, since access pathes will be needed sooner or later anyway. One local stretch of wilderness near my house is rife with deer and wild turkeys, it would be nice to see their homeland expand instead of contract like it has for the last century or so.

Anyway, take a glance at Greer’s writing. I think you’ll find it balanced, and probably pretty accurate look at our future, which will be difficult, but not catastrophic unless the resource wars really flare up. Right now, it’s the big boys trying to knock off the smaller players, which will put a cap on the killing. It’s when the US squares off with a world power (Russia, China, EU, take your pick) over previously-conquered ‘areas of influence’, that the potential for WWIII gets much scarier…

We are Captives of Our Freedom

September 14, 2006

I found this post’s title in a nice overview of historical oil shortages written by Ronald Cook on 321 Energy. It’s a great idea that’s easily summed up: We’ve taken the freedom granted to us by cheap energy (primarily oil), and used that freedom to live where we want, regardless of climate or distance from where we work, shop or recreate.

Cheap gasoline has enabled white flight, suburban sprawl, the exurbs, lake homes, NIMBY-ism, Wal-Mart, and a host of other things that we take for granted in our lives. Well, when our daily ‘fix’ of oil gets to be a lot more expensive, that same freedom will come back to bite us hard. Between rising costs for anything not made within a short distance of our residence, plummeting home values in outer suburbia and the exurbs, and a lot of suddenly broke and unemployed people, it’s easy to see why the government is putting a lot of money into ‘non-lethal’ crowd control devices

Two Interesting Notes about the Twin Cities Housing Market

September 13, 2006

The Strib is running an article today about the slowing housing market, and how it’s putting the screws to some home sellers, especially ones trying to unload expensive homes or ones that are distant from the metro area, like some of the McMansions that dot Western Wisconsin. While the market has been horrible this year, it seems we’re still doing better here then people in other markets. If you’ve got a reasonably-priced house, it will still sell since there’s a shortage of ‘affordable housing’ out there.

In a similar vein, Steven Lagavulin is describing his trials and tribulations during his leaving Minneapolis for the more pastoral regions of Wisconsin, and gives us a warning in today’s posting on his excellent blog Deconsumption. His house would be ‘reasonably priced’ by overall market standards, and he’s had a devil of a time selling his it, leaving his family in limbo. Like us, he decided to list his property this year instead of last, and, like us, missed the top of the market. The main difference is that we listed our house earlier in the year and were fortunate enough to close before the end of May.

It’s obvious to all that the housing market has turned. The question now is whether prices will stay stable, gently decline, or correct by 25% or more. If the latter case happens, it will have nasty effects that will permeate across our entire economy. This is why I think the feds will do what they can to try and stabilize things, at least for the next few years. George Ure over at Urban Survival thinks that we’ll see a pause in Federal Reserve rates hikes, if not a surprise lowering of rates to try and spur the markets. A house is the only real ‘asset’ many Americans can claim to own these days, and when the bubble finally deflates, it will spell doom for Wall Street, I think. So, we’ll get to see Washington scrambling to keep business as usual at least until the elections, if not longer.

I wish Steven well in his attempts to sell his house, and look forward to more installments on his transition to a simpler life. He’s taken a much larger step down that path than I will be able to anytime in the near future, and I salute him for that.

Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs

September 13, 2006

Just in case people think the police state meme is just vapor emanating from the tinfoil-encrusted minds of people who spend too much time on the internet, CNN posted this lovely snippet this morning:

Nonlethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices should be used on American citizens in crowd-control situations before being used on the battlefield, the Air Force secretary said Tuesday.

Coming soon to a Republican Party Convention or WTO meeting near you, all sorts of high-tech wonder toys that can be tested on anti-American, granola-eating, Chomsky-reading hippies & homegrown terrorists. I’ll be curious if they’ll use them only on perps that wander out of the “free speech zones” that are usually miles away from the action, or if it’ll be open season everywhere.

While I’m not a huge fan of the donkey, there’s no way a Decomratic-led government would condone such overtly malicious ‘research’ of weapons on American civilians. More unsettling stories like this seem to be popping up every week, and I shudder to think what kinds of actions the government would allow law enforcement and the military to undertake if there was another major attack on the US.

Season’s Bounty

September 12, 2006

I’m a neophyte when it comes to canning and whatnot, but I just cranked out the third ever batch of salsa I’ve made. It’s a hit with the family… hints of sweetness and heat, but plenty of pepper, tomatoe and cilantro to be tasted. I hit the farmer’s market on Saturday and was able to pick up everything I needed except for the cilantro, for some strange reason, and paid a fraction of what I would have had to cough up for inferior produce at the grocery store.

I’ve enjoyed enough success with the salsa that my wife has decided to try her hand at making homemade spaghetti sauce and canning it. I encouraged here to do so, since it’s a stealthy way to get the missus more acclimated to the way things may very well be in the future. Plus, it’s just fun to both make the stuff, and reel in the accolades from family members raised on Ragu and other store-bought stuff.

If anyone cares, the salsa recipe I used was modified from one of the ones in the Ball ‘Blue Book’ on canning. Lots of great stuff in a very inexpensive book.

Gas Prices in Freefall

September 12, 2006

What a difference a month makes…

At the beginning of August, we were looking at gasoline prices in the area of $2.95 or so and were praying that nothing really bad happened weatherwise or geopolitically that would punt the price of gas up near $4/gallon. A tame start to the 2006 hurricane season and business-as-usual in the Middle East has meant that gas prices stayed stable throughout August, and now the start of the school year has brought another “American Driving Season” to a close. The arrival of Labor Day has usually brought reductions in gas prices, but nothing like what’s happening this year.

In the last 7-10 days, retail gas prices have been in free-fall. In my neck of the woods, 87-octane unleaded was selling for $2.95 a gallon, and this morning it’s down around $2.34; a drop of around 20 percent. So, what gives? Yes, we’ve been very lucky with the hurricanes this year, and yes, the Middle East hasn’t gone completely to hell in a handbasket, but gas consumption is still high, the housing market is still either correcting or imploding depending on your point of view, and the economy as a whole is giving mixed signals as to the fiscal health of the USA.

Being a cynical, pessimistic sort of guy, I’m inclined to believe that there’s some funny business going on. My take on things goes something like this:

  • This is an election year, and the specter of 9/11 seems to be losing a lot of it’s mojo for the Republican party. More Americans are questioning our involvement in Iraq, it’s tenuous ties to 9/11, and according to some major news outlets, even questioning who pulled off the 9/11 attacks. All of this adds up to bad news for the GOP and the neo-conservative theorists that have taken the party’s foreign policy platform hostage.
  • More reports keep popping up about how average Americans are losing the financial battle. Wage growth hasn’t kept pace with inflation, and overall more of us are in trouble with our mortgages, credit cards, and bills in general. This bodes ill for a retail sector that has both enjoyed increased sales over the last few years, and is nervously eyeing the start of the Christmas shopping season that can make or break many retail corporations’ yearly earnings.
  • Disregarding some irrational exuberance about a large oil find in the Gulf of Mexico that may or may not be big news, America’s addiction to oil continues to grow. As the global price of oil keeps ratcheting up, American retailers will be unable to hide the rise in the cost of imported goods. This will mean trouble for the Wal-Marts, Targets, Home Depots and other big box retailers whose just-in-time, warehouse-on-wheels, always low cost business model will be under increasing pressure as years go by.
  • While the price of oil has been wildly gyrating this year, there has been a lot less fluctuation in the prices of natural gas. We’ve been very lucky in that we’ve had two mild winters in a row, which has kept NG prices under control. That trend will not continue forever.

Based on these assumptions, I find it convenient that the price of gasoline is plummeting just in time for the mid-term elections, and just in time for Americans to feel a little better about their finances when retailers are starting their yearly Christmas shopping blitz (which seems to start earlier and earlier each year). If I were a betting man, I’d wager that the intent is to get Americans to blow as much cash as possible on Christmas gifts before the elections in November. Hurricanes and geopolitics permitting, we’ll have a few months of relative calm until control of Congress is decided one way or another. After that, rising heating costs and a possible US attack on Iran will re-shuffle America’s economic deck once again.

So, I plan on enjoying the next few months and hope you do likewise. Fall is my favorite time of the year weather-wise, and I plan on enjoying the time watching my kids destroy my carefully crafted leaf piles, picking some apples, and harvesting on the last of the fresh sweet corn for the year. If you have durable goods you’re looking to acquire in the next few years, I would look at getting them soon. Since most everything we rely on comes from overseas, the prices of those things will ultimately be trending upward in coming years, even if there’s some deflation in the short term.