by Wil Keepers
An open letter to U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley
In your recent reelection to the US Senate, you fashioned yourself as firmly rooted in the middle class, as a man who “Has middle class views and values because he never left it.”, as you played table tennis in your garage wearing flannel. Yet recently, you gave a speech that firmly belies that advertising campaign.
I am middle class. I live in Salem, Oregon, and commute 14 miles roundtrip to work each day, while my wife commutes 18. One day a week, I work a second job in the evening and commute 22 miles round trip to it. Our family of five lives on an income of 62,000 a year. We have been between 56,000 and 62,000 every year since we returned to Oregon in 2009, placing us firmly in the middle class. We are the middle class you claim to belong to and support, and I am offended by your statement that 80% of fossil fuel must stay in the ground to meet climate change goals.
The reality is, that out here in the middle class, we can’t afford the rising cost of travel, of utilities, of food, and of products made as a result of fossil fuels. I must fill up my car weekly. My wife must fill hers. We cannot ride public transportation, it doesn’t conveniently take either of us in the direction we go. Riding a bicycle along highway 99 from Salem to Gervais may be good for the environment, but after seven miles of mud splatter, wind, rain and other hazards, I would not look very professional, as you do in your nice three piece suit.
Gasoline prices topped out at around 4 dollars a gallon. At that price, with no extras, just commuting to work and weekly visiting the grocery store and church, we were spending 90 dollars a week, 360 a month on gasoline. Now with gas at 2.85, we are spending about 65 a week, 260 a month. That hundred dollars may be chump change to you, Senator Middle Class Values, but to us, it is the difference in being able to afford dance lessons for our daughters. To someone poorer it might be the difference between having internet in the home or not, between eating larger or smaller meals.
And gasoline is just one aspect of the costs of limiting fossil fuels. We returned to Oregon in 2009. When we moved here, a box of generic Walmart saltine crackers was $1.18. Now it is $1.88. 70 cents every 2 weeks for just one grocery item. When we moved here, 93/7 hamburger was 3.58 a pound, now it is 4.28. All of these individual items add up to a higher overall grocery bill. We have seen across the board, higher fuel costs lead to higher grocery bills. And even with the recent reduction in fuel costs, these prices have not yet declined to match.
Every aspect of life here in the real middle class is just a little bit more expensive when fuel prices go up. These are real dollars, no longer used for savings or discretionary spending, or family vacations, but spent on essentials because of your war on fossil fuel. The irony is, that our rejection of Keystone, our cuts in greenhouse emissions, our self destruction economically, do little in the big picture. China and India produce ever growing amounts of greenhouse gases and who can blame them? Many of their people largely live at subsidence level, and they desire to grow. Africa, Asia, and Central and South America all desire growth, as they should, and somehow, the liberal answer is to voluntary reduce our standard of living, even though it will do little to reduce the overall emission levels.
You would answer that we should do it anyways, for the children, so that they can breathe clean air and drink clean water. I too would like a clean environment for our children, but I have to ask, as a middle class worker, do we really want to destitute ourselves for questionable if lofty goals? We can maintain sensible regulation but we have gone far beyond that and to try to add to the onerous load Oregonians already shoulder to meet unattainable and questionable environmental benchmarks is ludicrous and destructive to the middle class you claim to support.
If we finally reject Keystone, if we stop a large portion of coal burning, if we cease use of “dirty oil” from Canada, do you think it will cease production? They are already planning to send it to China. If we decide not to use our Natural Gas, by far the cleanest of the fossil fuels and we shut down our coal burning plants and breach our hydroelectric dams and shut down nuclear plants, do you really think its impact can be absorbed by more wind, solar, and geothermal energy? I see no evidence that these green sources of energy can make up for what we choose not to use, energy that can be extracted cleanly and cheaply if it is done right, and make us all better off by lowering our cost of living.
There are three ways in which the environmental regulatory policies you promote, including rejection of Keystone, squeeze the middle class you claim to belong to:
1) Less fossil fuels, as well as less use of natural resources such as timber and hydroelectric power, less agriculture in order to promote sustainable goals all lead to higher prices and less availability of viably low cost products for the middle class to consume. Housing, utilities, transportation, and food, all staples and not luxuries, are more expensive under your proposals to continue baseless rejection of Keystone and write expansive environmental regulations across the board.
2) Reducing these areas of the economy hurts people who rely on jobs in natural resources (like my formerly mill working father did throughout his life) directly as their jobs are lost and incomes reduced. Oregon has lost countless jobs to dubious regulation and higher fuel and utility costs.
3) Reducing these areas of the economy hurt those who work in service or support industries like my sister who works at a resort, my mother who works in retail, and even me, who works as a private school teacher. Fewer middle class jobs mean fewer people wanting services or able to afford services, leading to cutbacks all across the job spectrum.
These impact rural Oregon more directly, but they also hurt the poor in Portland, the college students recently graduated and looking for non-existent jobs, and the elderly on fixed retirement incomes. The only ones not hurt are those who work for government, as they can pass additional tax measures, user fees, licensing and permit fees, and further expand bureaucracy to keep enough money coming in to pay their salaries and benefits. We can’t all work for government, eventually there is no one left to tax to fund it.
As you promote “green solutions” to problems that may not even exist at the level you fear, as you propose more and more restriction to use of fossil fuels, I hope you think about your constituents, the ones you claim to be a part of. We struggle daily, and your cost raising environmental crusade does nothing at all to help us.
Wil Keepers of Salem, Oregon is a private school science teacher and an adjunct Biology instructor at Corban University. He is a Navy veteran and also taught public and private school in the Sacramento, California area.