Saturday, December 27, 2014

Gas at 29.9 - the sequel

Those of us who have lived through more than just a few decades fondly remember the prices of various commodities during “the good old days”.

In 1964, the average new house was priced at slightly over $20,000

In 1964, a new Rolls Royce was priced at $16.655

In 1964, the average new car for the rest of us was $2250

In 1964, a loaf of bread was 21 cents

In 1964, a first class stamp was 5 cents

In 1964, the average price of a gallon of gas was 25 cents

In 1964, the average movie ticket was $1

When I graduated from high school a year later, the average price of a gallon of gas had risen slightly, to 29.9 per gallon. Even though that price was absurdly low, a stop at the gas station meant that an attendant would (1) fill your gas tank, (2) clean your windshield, (3) check the air pressure in your tires, (4) check your windshield wipers, (5) check your battery, (6) check your oil, (7) check your fan belt, and (8) check your radiator. On top of all that, you probably also got green stamps, and maybe even a “Shell” glass.

Believe it or not, the average price of a gallon of gas in 2014 is LESS than it was in 1965, when you factor in inflation. In 1964, $100 had the same buying power as $761.78 does today.. If you do the math, you’ll discover that 29.9 cents per gallon is equivalent to $2.27 today, and almost all stations sell it for less today. We were in Phoenix on our Christmas break, and discovered that several stations were selling regular gas for $1.99 per gallon.

Early in the 2012 Presidential campaign, Michelle Bachmann promised voters that she’d bring back gasoline at $2.00 a gallon, and Newt Gingrich promised gasoline prices of $2.50 per gallon.

The highest average price that our country has had for a gallon of regular gas was $4.10, which occurred in July of 2008, when George W. Bush was in office. In December of 2003, regular gas averaged $1.44 a gallon, which meant that the price of gasoline increased 185% in roughly a 4 year period.

Barack Obama can’t take credit for our current gasoline prices, just as neither Michelle Bachmann or Newt Gingrich could have taken credit if (God forbid) either one of them got elected, since gasoline prices are governed by a worldwide petroleum market.

When gasoline prices were at their peak, so was the price of crude oil, which peaked at $146.41 per barrel in June of 2008. Today, a barrel of crude oil sells for less than $60, a level that makes drilling in the Arctic Sea or in the Alberta tar sands unprofitable.

Since Obama can’t take credit for gasoline prices, it’s worthwhile to consider the things that he CAN take credit for.

As of December 23, the U.S. Economy was growing at an annual rate of 5%, a level that hasn’t been achieved since 2003.

As of December 22, the percentage of the American population that didn’t have health insurance dropped to 11.3%, the lowest number in our country’s history.

The current Federal deficit is at the lowest level it’s been since 2008, the year before Obama took office.

In November, the unemployment rate was 5.8%, the lowest it’s been since July of 2008, also before Obama took office.

The annual inflation rate at the end of 2013 was 1.5%. With the exception of the recession year of 2009, the last time that the annual inflation rate was less than that was in 1964, when it was 1.3%.

Less than a week ago, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 18.100, the highest level in our country’s history.

What's truly amazing about these accomplishments is that Congress had very little to do with any of them. The 112th Congress is officially the least productive Congress in recent history and the 113th Congress is not far behind. The St. Louis Federal Reserve has estimated that the economy would be larger by $529 billion (roughly 3%) if congressional Republicans had cooperated with the President.

With all that good economic news, you’d think that the current occupant of the White House would get a few “attaboys”, or at least a few kind words.


On November 21, House Speaker John Boehner filed a lawsuit against President Obama, essentially for doing his job. Since there is no actual valid reason for a lawsuit, Boehner has been having difficulty finding a law firm to represent him.

Even though Boehner’s lawsuit isn’t going any where, a CNN survey found in July of 2014 found that 57% of the Republicans polled favored impeachment, even though a clear majority of the American public thought it was a truly crazy idea.

I’ve given up trying to understand politics, and I’ve also given up trying to understand a lot of other topics as well. For the time being, I’m simply going to enjoy our cheap gasoline.

Let’s let the good times roll.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Old King Coal

Since we’re very close to Christmas, I’d have to confess that it’s OK to wish me a Merry Christmas, since the phrase does not offend me in the least. I’ll also be quick to add that I’m not offended by the phrase “happy holidays” either, since numerous other holidays are also celebrated around December 25.

Atheists celebrate the Winter Solstice, Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day, Jews celebrate Hanukkah, Nova Romans celebrate Saturnalia, Wiccans and Neopagans celebrate Yule, folks of African descent celebrate Kwanzaa, and Zoroastrians celebrate observe Zartusht-no-diso, so it’s clear that the end of December is a special time of the year for an awful lot of people.

By the time that Christmas finally arrives, we’re all a little burned out by all the Christmas music that’s been playing for the last month, and even the beloved “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” has started to get on my nerves.

One song that gets occasional play this time of the year is “Old King Cole”. Although it was first performed n 1708, the poem itself actually dates much further than that . If your memory is a bit short, the complete poem is listed below:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul

And a merry old soul was he;

He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl

And he called for his fiddlers three.

Every fiddler he had a fiddle,

And a very fine fiddle had he;

Oh there's none so rare, as can compare

With King Cole and his fiddlers three.

Although “Old King Cole” has a long history, it pales in comparison to Old King Coal, which has been around MUCH longer. The first use of coal as a fuel goes back about 3000 years ago. Like many things in common use today, it was originally discovered by the ancient Chinese people.

Coal has been in the news again lately, and for a couple of different reasons.

1) A jury in West Virginia recently charged Donald Blankenship (former chief of Massey Energy Company) with widespread safety violations and deceit of federal inspectors, and a judge in Kentucky just issued a scathing judgment in a Frasure Creek Mining settlement that involved a thousand violations of the Clean Water Act.

2) John Grisham just released his newest novel, Gray Mountain, which highlights the nefarious acts of Big Coal in Appalachia. I’m in the process of working my way through it, but also couldn’t help but notice his mention of the Martin Country coal slurry spill, which somehow managed to not get noticed by most of us.

(Like many of his books, his most recent novel relies heavily on facts and current events. His sources for this book include information that he obtained from the Appalachian Citizen's Law Center and Appalachian Voices.)

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was VERY big news when it occurred, since the ship spilled someplace between 12,000,000 and 32,000,000 gallons of oil in Price William Sound in 1989. Both Exxon and the ship’s captain, Joseph Hazelwood, escaped the incident with very little cost. An even bigger spill occurred in April of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and sank. It is easily the largest accidental marine spill in the history of the oil industry, and it resulted in an estimated total discharge of 210 million gallons of sludge into the Gulf of Mexico.

In contrast, the Martin County coal slurry spill released 306,000,000 gallons of coal slurry into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River in October of 2000. Since the spill was anywhere from 10 to 30 times worse than the Exxon spill, you’d think that the general public would be outraged.


I don’t remember the spill being in the news at all, and the company responsible for the spill, Massey Energy (whose chairman is mentioned above) escaped with virtually no punishment at all. Officially, the company WAS fined, but the fine was less than the price of a well worn used car. Coincidentally, Mitch McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao was in charge of the Labor Department at the time of the spill. In her position as Labor Secretary, she also oversaw the Mine Safety and Health Administration. In 2002, she imposed a fine of $5600 against Massey for the spill.

Although Elaine Chao is a very smart lady, she didn’t do any of the rest of us any favors when she was Labor Secretary. During her first 4 years as Labor Secretary, her department did not promulgate ANY significant health standards. It has also been alleged that both she and other Bush White House officials campaigned for Republican candidates at taxpayer expense, which is a violation of the Hatch acto of 1939. No action was taken against her or any other officials by any entity responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act.

It’s hard to imagine any disaster worst than over 300,000,000 gallons of junk spilling into our navigable waters, but one DID occur (in Tennessee) 8 years later.

On December 22, 2008, the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill released an incredible 1.1 billion gallons of sludge into local waterways. Six months after the spill, only 3% of the affected area had been cleaned up, The plant responsible for the spill continues to operate today. Unlike the Martin County spill, the guilty party (the TVA) agreed to pay $27,000,000 in restitution to property owners.

In response to the Martin County and the Kingston Fossil Plant spills, Lisa P. Jackson, Barack Obama's choice to head the EPA under his administration, stated her intention to immediately review coal ash disposal sites across the country during her Senate confirmation hearing. On January 14, 2009, Nick J. Rahall, a U.S. Representative from West Virginia and the chairman of the United States House Committee on Natural Resources, introduced a bill to regulate coal ash disposal sites across the United States.

The EPA regulations finally took effect in December of 2014 nearly 6 years later, and were prompted by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups and a Native American tribe. Also spurring the regulations along were recent spills in Tennessee and elsewhere. The most recent spill occurred in February of 2014, when a coal ash pond in Eden, North Carolina ruptured, releasing between 50,000 and 82,000 tons of coal ash, and 27,000,000 gallons of contaminated water, into the Dan River. Legal liability will be a little complicated due to the fact that North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, worked for the company responsible for the spill, Duke Energy, for 28 years, and has gone on record as being reluctant to punish his former employer. Duke Energy has the distinction of being the largest electric holding company in the United States, and the company also has holdings in Canada and Latin America.

Since coal slurry spills are an obvious public safety issue, you’d probably assume that Congress would allow the EPA to have all the funds it needs to enforce the environmental laws that have been on the books for decades.


It’s no secret that the 113th Congress is one of the worst that our country has ever had. Since 2010, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has cut funding to the EPA by 21%, and that situation is unlikely to change during the 114th Congress, which will have an INCREASE of Republicans in the House, and a Republican majority in the Senate.

Incredibly, coal slurry storage has increased dramatically since the Martin Country spill in 2000. Most recently, piles of coal slurry have appeared on the Calumet River near Chicago. Not surprisingly, the company responsible for the piles is Koch Carbon, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, which is led by David and Charles Koch.

Koch Carbon also has numerous coal slurry sites in Detroit, including one that is immediately adjacent to the Detroit River. Including the sites near Detroit that are owned by Koch Carbon, there are 29 coal slurry storage facilities in Michigan, and 19 of them are within a five mile radius of the shores of the Great Lakes. In addition, a Canadian refinery owned by Koch Industries (and directly across from Detroit) recently started to refine tar sands oil, the stuff that the Koch brothers would LOVE to start sending through the Keystone XL pipeline. So far, the results have not been pretty.

Although the Koch brothers sell a significant amount of coal slurry to China for use as fuel, they aren’t the largest petroleum coke (petcoke) dealer in the world, Their brother, William (who owns Oxbow Corporation) has that distinction.

Big Coal has a very ugly history when it comes to labor relations , including the 1969 murder of Jock Yablonski and his family in 1969, but that’s a topic that could easily be a story in itself.

In addition to the environmental hazards created by coal mining, three other areas of concern related to coal mining are:

1) Black lung disease

Black lung disease (officially, progressive massive fibrosis) was virtually eliminated 15 years ago, but has skyrocketed again in recent years. Today, roughly 1000 miners a year die from the disease. The problem is FAR worse in China, where an estimated SIX MILLION people suffer from the disease.

2) Global warming

The United States currently obtains 37% of its electric power from coal-fired power plants, which are the nation’s leading source of carbon pollution, and a significant contributor to global warming. In contrast, China gets 69% ot its electricity from coal plants. Again, the results aren’t pretty:

3) Mine collapses

Although coal companies are shifting towards strip mining to reduce labor costs, there is still a lot of coal mining done underground. In America, the worst coal mining disaster occurred in Monongah, West Virginia in 1907. An explosion and mine collapse in that town killed an estimated 367 miners, many of whom were recent immigrants from Italy.

The worst mine disaster in the entire world occurred in the Liaoning province of China in 1942. An explosion in the underground there killed a total of 1549 Chinese laborers.

China has ample coal reserves, and currently produces nearly half of the world’s coal production. However, it also has a far higher death rate from coal mining than any other country in the world.

America is the 2nd largest producer of coal in the world, but we are a net exporter of the stuff, with the vast majority of our exports going to China. The Appalachian region still contributes a lot to our total output, but Wyoming is, by far, the largest producer of coal currently.

The United States has the largest coal reserves in the world, but Russia is close behind. At current rates of consumption, the world’s coal reserves would last for another 112 years, so it will continue to be a reliable and economical fuel source for a number of decades.

There is no particular problem continuing to use coal as an energy source AS LONG AS the coal plants adhere to strict environmental standards. For some reason, some members of Congress have trouble understanding that concept, and consider the regulation of power plants to be a “war on coal”. Currently, the coal plant in Homer, Pennsylvania is one of the dirtiest in the country, but recent pollution mitigation devices will reduce pollution from the plant by 80% within a few years, with no loss of jobs, or increase in electricity rates.

For the folks in Congress who still “don’t get it”, my suggestion is to send them an appropriate Christmas gift - a lump of coal.

At this point, you’ve waded through a lot of information about Old King Coal, so it’s time for the pipe, the bowl and the fiddlers three. In closing, here’s my final message to you:

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night

Sunday, December 7, 2014

You say salami, I say salame

On average, I’ll go to one (or more) grocery stores somewhere between 15 and 20 times per month, generally just to pick up a few items. I’ll rarely go to the store on a Saturday, and my work schedule allows me to go shopping mid afternoon, which helps to avoid the usual crowds.

On a recent trip to one of the stores, I happened to walk past a display of “Italian Dry Salame” , which was manufactured by a company called Galileo Foods in San Lorenzo, California. A link to their website is shown below:


The company was founded in 1910 in San Francisco by a man named Louis Gabiati, who brought a centuries-old salame recipe from his native Italy. Naturally, the stuff that I bought was delicious, and it went very well with crackers, smoked gouda cheese, and a nice red wine.

However, the experience got me to wondering what exactly IS salame, and why is it spelled with an “e” at the end instead of an “I“?.

Salami is the plural form of the Italian word salame. By definition, salami is (are?) cured sausage, fermented and air-dried meat, originating from a variety of animals. Although the most common base is pork, salami is also made with beef, veal, venison, poultry, goose, donkey or horse. There are at least 18 different variations of salami, one of which is pepperoni.

The main difference between salami and pepperoni is that pepperoni is a mixture of pork and beef, and the name itself is a corruption of the Italian word peperoni, which is used to describe bell peppers. Pepperoni is a VERY popular dish in America, since 36% of all pizzas sold in this country contain pepperoni. If you add all that pepperoni up, it would total in excess of 250,000,000 pounds.

Another version of salami is bologna, which was originally produced in the Italian town of Bologna. Like salami, it’s usually made from pork, but can also be made from chicken, beef, venison or soy.

I know for a fact that there are people who talk to their plants, and it’s probable that there are chefs who talk to their food while preparing it, but here’s an interesting twist for you. If you’d like to hear Salami sing to you, just click on the link below:

listen to your Salami sing