Thursday, January 29, 2009

Geography Matters….for Corn and Canadian Crude

This past weekend I made a very cold, windy and reflective journey to Redwood Falls to my mother-in-law’s funeral. My wife and daughters were already there; so it was just me, my iPOD, and the thump of the tires rolling along the snow-swept roads of west-central Minnesota.

As I drove my mind wondered among many unrelated and spontaneous thoughts. Some centered on the 27-odd years I had known Jean and what an important place she had in my heart; some seemed to migrate toward warm vacation spots; and some categorized into yet-to-be-done “To Do” lists.

Somewhere along the drive I reflected on a recent conversation with my daughter about evolution, Charles Darwin and his book, On the Origins of Species. Our conclusion was that although species can survive in isolation, interconnected places are better than isolated, unconnected places because they generally have more species in greater numbers. We also agreed that while we like visiting islands…especially if they are warm…we liked our mid-continent location better because of its four biomes, changing seasons and our easy connection to the rest of the country. Our conversation wandered, but the obvious conclusion is that geography really matters because it directly and indirectly influences so much.

Elsewhere on my drive, I thought of Minnesota-native Tom Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, And, then paradoxically connected that thought to a comment in Daniel Borstin’s book The Discoverers where he said something like, “the greatest threat to human advancement was the illusion of knowledge.” Borstin was referring to the middle ages, when people really did think the world was flat and therefore never sought to explore the planet…at least until Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492…while Friedman, of course, was extolling the interconnectedness of the planet’s economies. Again, geography matters, where it’s topological or psychological.

Along my drive I went by the ethanol plant outside of Winthrop and thought, “how lucky Minnesota is to have that facility; how lucky Minnesota is to have the soil, the rainfall and weather that leads to bountiful corn harvests that supply that plant; and how proud I was to be part of the state with the strongest biofuels programs in the country.” Again, geography matters.

Minnesota is not an island, very far from it. We are connected to our neighbors, our midwestern region and the rest of the country. We sit in the middle of the North America and play host to the continent’s three great watersheds: the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay and Mississippi. It is Minnesota’s interconnected geography that produces the diverse species, the bountiful corn harvests and influential thinkers like Tom Friedman. It is this interconnected geography that led the Midwestern Governors to unite and promote renewables and energy efficiency and are working together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Minnesota’s interconnected geography matters: It makes us who we are, why we are here and why we flourish. Islands are nice places to visit on vacation but they do not have Minnesota’s interconnected strength, diversity and benefits. We are lucky in that way.
Although rich in wind and biomass potential, Minnesota lacks traditional energy fuels; yet our interconnected geography benefits us because we are adjacent to Canada and relatively close to its oil reserves. Those reserves provide over 80% of our gasoline.

“Minnesota has a fortunate geography,” were my thoughts as I rolled through Morton, six miles from Redwood Falls. And, then it occurred to me that there are times when we forget the value of our interconnected geography, erecting walls and barriers that sever those connections and testing Minnesota’s economic vitality. I fear that the potential adoption of a low carbon fuel standard is one of those instances. Adopting such an isolating standard could limit our very important ties to our Canadian neighbors a well as possibly hurting our corn-based ethanol industry. Taking such unilateral action when the cooperative MGA effort is making slow but steady progress and President Obama is taking action on climate issues, would be unfortunate and hopefully will be avoided.

These were thoughts on this journey before I left the island of my car to enjoy the connections of my extended family….who had traveled from across the country to be there. Geography matters because it’s our home.

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