No thanks to President Biden — who botched our star turn in his State of the Union address and refuses to loosen his restrictions on our hydrocarbon industry —but Flyover Country is beginning to experience a major moment.
It may be enough not only to finally shed the “Rust Belt” moniker Biden used in his speech to describe the Upper Midwest but also to pave the way for us to adopt an updated and more accurate regional descriptor for the entire heartland.
How about the “Future Belt”?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a travesty and a tragedy that may yet result in nuclear annihilation. But in the meantime, the reverberations from this new war have created great potential for our region alone to enhance the national security of the entire United States. And combined with the renewal of our industrial base with coming investments in microchips and electric-vehicle manufacturing, we have a generational opportunity to re-assert ourselves as the bell cow of American economic progress.
The administration and Congress can try mostly symbolic measures to punish the Russians, such as banning imports of their hydrocarbons. On the other hand and perhaps paradoxically, the federal government also can provide more supply to oil markets by tapping the national strategic petroleum reserve. Biden also can press our conditional friends in the Middle East to open their oil spigots a little wider.
What Must Be Done
But it’s frustrating that the most obvious step to restore significant supplies to global oil markets and simultaneously weaken Russia may never occur. That would be for Biden to let loose the animal spirits in the oil patch that he so abruptly restrained once he took office a year ago, by canceling pipeline projects and thwarting oil and gas exploration to bow to the green lobby. His moves helped throw in reverse many years of increasing U.S. oil and natural gas production that truly had made us energy independent.
One group of accomplished and proactive business people, the Job Creators Network, loudly has pointed out to the president exactly what he should do. “Hey Vlad. Screw you!” reads the billboard erected in New York’s Times Square this week by the Atlanta-based organization founded by Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus. “Nyet to Russian oil. Time for American oil. Drill more. Pay less. C’mon Joe. This ain’t Hard.”
Even business organizations that are woke relative to the Job Creators Network at least are alluding to the most obvious thing we can do in the face of the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II. The Business Roundtable, for example, just called for “steps to increase our energy independence.”
The need to reverse course in this area is expressed even by green-energy billionaire Elon Musk, founder of EV pioneer Tesla, who tweeted a few days ago, “Hate to say it, but we need to increase oil & gas output immediately. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures. Obviously, this would negatively affect Tesla, but sustainable energy solutions simply cannot react instantaneously to make up for Russian oil and gas exports.”
Indeed, taking meaningful action to dull the bite of Russian aggression on global energy supplies requires setting aside at least temporarily the current emphasis by American and global political and business elites on steps they believe will curtail climate change. Helping bring Russia to heel has nothing to do with suddenly erecting more windmills and arrays of solar panels.
Back to the Oil Patch
The only significant thing America can do in this moment is to loosen up again on entrepreneurs in the oil patch of Texas and Oklahoma and the fracking fields of North Dakota, Louisiana, Ohio and non-flyover states ranging from California to Pennsylvania.
True, there’s more at play in frackers’ investment decisions than just the factors the federal government can control. But a few actions both material and symbolic by the president — acting courageously against his party’s political bent amid the clear and present danger to our economy and our desire to blunt the Russians however we can — could go a long way toward teasing more oil and natural-gas production out of the ample hydrocarbon deposits that stretch across this country.
These possibilities aren’t constrained to oil and natural gas, either. As the war in Ukraine scrambles global energy markets and creates the very real possibility that Europeans could freeze next winter if Russia no longer is pumping natural gas west to the continent, coal is suddenly enjoying a renaissance in popularity across the Atlantic. It’s unclear how long and strong that trend would have to become before it boosted coal in places like Ohio and West Virginia, which are battling long-term efforts to exterminate their coal industry.
Another wrinkle from the conflict in Ukraine affects Flyover Country: corn. Ukraine is the world’s fourth-largest corn exporter, and the war quite understandably is sowing great concern that farmers there won’t be able to do their usual spring planting just one year after the nation posted its biggest-ever corn crop.
Ukraine exports almost 80% of the corn it grows. If that trade is constricted for the short term or especially the long term, the world’s premier corn growers — farmers in America’s heartland — could be called upon to make up the difference.
Industrial Transformation Too
This brings us back to the State of the Union speech. Biden set up an important passage of the address wonderfully by having Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger in the visitors’ section, hailing him for the company’s decision to commit at least $20 billion, and possibly as much as $100 billion, to build a microchip-manufacturing complex in the heart of Ohio.
Biden also cited the tens of billions of dollars in expected investments by General Motors and Ford in electric-vehicle manufacturing complexes across the region. He could have, but didn’t, mention the other automakers that continue to announce huge plans to make new investments in the future of EVs in Flyover Country locales ranging from Mississippi to Georgia to Indiana.
“Just look around, and you’ll see an amazing story,” the president said, about “the revitalization of American manufacturing. Companies are choosing to build new factories here, when just a few years ago, they would have gone overseas.” And by “here,” Biden actually meant Flyover Country.
As he filled out his point, Biden blew it rhetorically, as not surprisingly he did a few other lines in his speech. “As Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown says,” Biden went on, “’It’s time to bury the Rust Belt.' It’s time …” and then Biden went off-script and stuttered through this sentence: “It’s time to see what used to be called the Rust Belt become the home of significant resurgence of manufacturing.”
No matter, really — especially in the big picture. Not even presidential stumbling and mumbling through the moment could obscure the fact that our region is emerging into a new future, through both the ruins of a foreign war and the opportunity to become the global center of new kinds of manufacturing.
We’re the Future Belt.