Do the math: Oil ($$) trumps food


Longtime readers of this weekly effort know that, like most journalists, I do math as well as I do elephant tracking and space shuttle driving. Oh, I can do the simple stuff like addition, multiplication, division and, as the lovely Catherine often has reason to note, “a little subtraction,” but calculus? Whoa, daddy.

Because of this easily seen blind spot, stories written by journalists who do do math are, to me, not just revealing but remarkable. For example, a Dec. 6, 2011, Wall Street Journal story, “Oil’s Growing Thirst for Water,” included the mathematical facts on “whether the underground water in south Texas can support both ranching and energy exploration.”

The operative paragraph in it reads:

“Mr. Brownlow, who has a Ph.D. in geochemistry, says it takes 407 million gallons to irrigate 640 acres and grow about $200,000 worth of corn on arid land. The same amount of water, he says, could be used to frack enough wells” — fracture subterranean rock to release its oil and gas — “to generate $2.5 billion worth of oil.”

So 407 million gallons of south Texas water will yield either $200,000 of corn or $2.5 billion of oil and gas. That means there are 12,500 times more reasons to use the water to extract oil and gas than to grow corn and cows. Wow. It also suggests that all today’s feed-the-world talk has about a one-in-12,500 chance to come true because we’ll likely use ever-increasing amounts of ever-more-scarce water to pump oil to fuel cars to drive to grocery stores to look at empty shelves rather than use it to grow food to fill those shelves.

Or is my math wrong?

If correct, this sounds like something for Congress to examine — they can do math, right? — as it seeks balance in the nation’s natural resource policy. Then again balance is not what Congress seeks in an election year; re-election is what Congress seeks in an election year.

That means, according to Capitol Hill watchers, little substantive legislation on any key issue like deficit reduction, the environment and agriculture will move anywhere, if at all, in 2012. That could fire up voters to fire some senators and congressmen in November, eh?

It happens more often than you may recall. For instance, according to numbers posted Jan. 17 by the National Journal, 105 of the House’s 435 members, or (I think) 24 percent, in 2010 either quit, ran for another office or were defeated in the election. Likewise, in 2010, 21 Senate incumbents either retired, resigned, ran for other offices or were defeated. That’d be… hmmm… right, 21 percent turnover.

And, already in 2012, 10 senators have chosen to either retire or resign and 35 House members have said they will move out. That means (take several deep breaths before we dive into the very deep water of addition + division!) in just two years at least 31 percent of the Senate and 32 percent of House will have turned over.

Even more remarkable, if the 2008 election results are folded in the above numbers, 197 of the House’s 435 seats — or a stunning 45 percent — will have new suit pants or pants suits warming ’em in just four years come next January.

In the Senate, the numbers are nearly as startling: 41 seats, or (got it!) 41 percent, in just four years.

Coincidentally, four years ago was the last time Congress’s overall approval rating even touched the very mediocre 30 percent mark. On Jan. 16, a Washington Post/ABC News poll put that approval rating at 13 percent.

Hey, look at the bright side: Congress’s approval rating and Mitt Romney’s effective federal tax rate are almost the same. At least I think so.

© 2012 ag comm


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.



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