Paul Andersen: Fair Game
October 16, 2011
I’m hooked, and I’m in trouble. I’ve got a habit, and it’s sucking up money like a Hoover. I need an intervention. Actually, it’s my home that needs the intervention. I just need an infusion of cash to pay for the IV pipeline going direct to its core. The addiction is energy. The drug is propane.
I recently wrote a check to my local propane dealer for a pre-buy discount, the largest lump sum of my yearly utility expenditures. It felt like I was paying off “The Man” for my fix.
Because I live in rural America, beyond the reach of less expensive natural gas, I need propane to heat my house. If this winter is as cold as last, I’ll be using more than the 500 gallons my tank holds. Not only do I pay through the nose for propane, I wring my hands in worry over getting a truck up the luge run that serves as my driveway.
Years ago, a song parody by Pickard and Bowden, done to the famous Eric Clapton dirge “Cocaine,” lamented the high cost of propane:
If you wanna get warm/When you’re down on the farm/propane
If you live in the sticks/And your income is fixed/propane
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It’s so high, it’s so high, its so high … propane
When your grandma gets old/You can’t let her get cold/propane
When your cousin, she’s hot/But your fingers are not/propane
When your tank’s out of gas/And you’re freezing your ass/propane
When you’re all out of luck/here comes the big truck/propane
It’s so high, it’s so high, it’s so high … propane
I used to think that song was funny. I’m not laughing anymore. Propane prices are through the roof, which is also where most of my heat goes. My only solution is to wrap my house in my wife’s heirloom quilts and board over the windows. I’m a propane addict who wants to kick the habit, and I’m doing everything I can.
I burn firewood religiously. I subscribe to solar energy through a local collective that provides 95 percent of my electricity needs. I have solar hot water panels on my roof that heat my domestic hot water. My home is designed for passive solar gain, but when the winter sun drops low, the rays fade, and the cold seeps in with icy fingers. Propane is the only thing between me and hypothermia.
When the propane boiler kicks on, that gleaming white tank behind my house becomes a piggy bank in which I drop thousands of dollars a year. But the bank never pays out, it only takes in. I’m literally burning money, here.
The price of propane fluctuates like any fossil fuel. But when it fluctuates in a steady upward spiral, propane customers like me are locked into a finite resource controlled by feckless profiteers throughout the supply chain. Most rural consumers can’t afford dramatic price fluctuations, but we either fill our tanks or go without, shivering in our hovels like Tiny Tim Cratchit.
If the high price holds into winter, propane customers will complain bitterly. Some will petition the state and feds to ramp up domestic energy production. They assume that more production will drive down costs. But raping our Western landscape is an empty sacrifice to a greedy industry where price gouging is a long standing tradition, no matter what the price.
What is the real cost of energy? It’s more than what my propane dealer has been charging, when considering carbon emissions, air pollution and the financial support imported oil provides Arab oligarchs who cost us trillions in military interventions. The real cost of propane is magnitudes beyond the rates being charged today, which we end up paying in taxes to the Pentagon.
“Drill, baby, drill” is not the answer. A drill pad in every backyard is no solution. Burning more and enjoying it less is irrational and short-term. There are smarter ways to heat a home.
Alternative energies, like solar hot water, biomass, hydro and wind, are more important now that financial insecurity is hitting so many. America needs an energy policy that downplays the addictive power of fossil fuels and mandates aggressive energy efficiency. Maybe then users like me can kick the propane habit.
Meanwhile, I’m founding PA – Propane Anonymous – for all you addicts out there who want to huddle together this winter and shiver like bees in a hive to stay warm.
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