Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Real Wastebasket Jumpshot

Countless times I have gotten together with paper industry people and usually when guys (mostly) are involved, the discussions quickly move to sports-jock talk. While I don’t have the clich├ęd golf clubs in my trunk, I can hold down my end of the conversation if it involves major league baseball. However, more often than not, it devolves into a discussion of collegiate football or basketball…to me it's like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher.

So anyway, some month’s back, Sports Illustrated contacted me about the piles of mail (p-a-p-e-r) that NCAA teams send to potential recruits who are still in high school. The resulting article was in the August 3rd issue. Most of the article centers on a top high school player from Santa Barbara, California. Keep an eye out for Roberto Nelson at Oregon State over the next few years.

So yours truly got to be in Sports Jock Heaven…Sports Illustrated. Here’s the article and it does involve paper!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Black Liquor -- Never So Tasty

Did you ever see Matthew Lasko, the guy wearing the question-mark covered suit on TV infomercials touting free government money giveaways? I always thought it was a joke. Man, I guess I have missed the boat.

The latest opportunity seems to be the pulp & paper industry getting multi-million dollar payments and tax credits from the US government for doing something the industry has been doing for the past 70 years, powering their mills by burning the recovery boiler black liquor residual. Well, actually there is something new in that they have to add some diesel fuel to the black liquor burn to qualify as an alternative fuel, and thus be able to obtain a tax-credit/subsidy. They get this by taking advantage of a loophole some clever paper industry people found in a 2005 highway transportation bill.

As recently reported in The Nation, Washington Post and other sources, the practice of burning black liquor at pulp mills started in the 1930s, but the opportunity for an alternative fuels tax credit is something most pulp mills with recovery boiler operations could now qualify for. Why would any paper company pass up a Wesley Snipes-like, jump-on-the-bandwagon, we-twisted-it tax scheme?

International Paper Company recently touted its windfall of $79 million for one month of operation.

Clearly this tax credit/subsidy for black liquor burning was not the intent of the 2005 highway transportation bill. The alternative fuels tax credit was intended to stimulate and create incentives for new production of non-fossil fuels. Not to support existing 1930’s technology.

Possibly kudos should be considered for the people who discovered that pulp mills could, with the minor addition of diesel fuel, be the recipients of US Government largess. But the whole thing is so similar to the public’s perception of undeserved bonus money going to AIG executives, that maybe it could backfire. The potential public relations disaster should cause any paper company boardroom to pause. My thought: discontinue the practice…and maybe send back any money already received. The bad publicity is not worth it.

Back during the Reagan Administration, I am certain the idea of having ketchup qualify as a vegetable for school lunch programs was not an Oval Office decision. It was some USDA wise guys who made that “cost effective” pronouncement. But the Reagan Presidency was widely ridiculed as cynical for allowing such a definition in school lunch nutrition programs. It was a PR nightmare for the White House.

Likewise, some bean-counting, tax code-researching, buried-at-headquarters MBAs uncovered the potential to reap some generous rewards from everyday operations at pulp mills…maybe it required an additional meeting to make some minor modifications. But now the boardroom is going to have to deal with resulting heat. Given our current economic climate, the public may lump this in with any and all public money bailout abuse.

Situations like this make our country's operations look amateurish. This just adds to America’s unfavorable standing in the world. Hell, even the Canadians are getting pissed off at us.

The paper industry in the US does need help and support. But let’s reward jobs and innovation. Not existing everyday technology. These recovery boilers, which are the money-making engines referred to in this alternative fuels subsidy issue were called "...old, relatively inefficient, high maintenance and vulnerable to catastrophic smelt water explosions" in a joint US paper industry and US Department of Energy report in 2006. Senators Baucus and Grassley want to put a stop to the loophole. No doubt pressure will mount to keep the loophole in place. Maybe a review of the report will remind the paper industry that just a few years ago they were focused on the new and innovative...not 70 year old technology.

Someone found this tax loophole and presented it to higher ups. The problem is higher ups in charge said “cool!”.

Time to call this a bad idea and shut it down.

With this said, I still may just send away to Pueblo, Colorado and get one of those government booklets on give-away programs. I may be missing out too.