Commentary: Collateral damage

By Michael Hall

Mainers will be collateral damage in the Biden administration’s war on fossil fuels. The unplanned, unprepared and precipitous rise in home heating cost will cost lives. Rather than freezing quietly in their homes Mainers will search for alternative ways to stay warm. The hastily installed wood or pellet stove will kill people. The non-maintained, uninspected chimney will kill people. The unvented propane heater will kill people. The electric space heater too close to flammable fabrics will kill people. The out of shape person trying to split wood will die. The elderly having to choose between food, heat and medication will die. Children will be burned in mobile home fires from improperly installed wood stoves. Calls to 911 due to carbon monoxide poisoning will spike. Grandmothers wrapped in quilts will burn when their electric space heaters catch them afire.

2008 Maine State Fire Marshal John Dean said high oil prices have often prompted people on tight budgets to turn to less-safe heating alternatives, such as old space heaters that should have been discarded long ago or wood stoves attached to uninspected chimneys. A 2008 Quincy (Mass.) Patriot Ledger article polled the state’s fire chiefs association and found a direct correlation between higher oil prices and fire-related deaths. A November 2021 Bloomberg news article interviewed firewood dealers nationwide and, to no one’s surprise, the demand for firewood has skyrocketed.

The Unites States Fire Administration estimates that wood stoves cause over 4,000 residential fires every year. That number was generated in years with low oil prices. It will only get worse the higher oil prices go. The EPA estimates that 65 percent of the woodstoves in use in the U.S. are older devices that produce significant pollution and do not burn efficiently.

We need to prepare for a deluge of news stories documenting the death and destruction directly caused by President Biden’s policies. How many will die is the only relevant question. If we prepare now, we can save many of the victims.

New England, including Maine, needs to prepare now for the coming heating season. Too bad the Legislature decided to give taxpayers a rebate of $850. That money could have been better spent buying new wood stoves, cleaning and inspecting chimneys. The state Fire Marshal’s Office needs to add staff and fill any vacancies. Dispatchers for 911 need to practice mutual aid calls. Local volunteer fire departments need to focus their practice sessions on chimney fires. Rescue squads and emergency rooms need to be ready for carbon monoxide cases.

It did not have to go this way. Given time to prepare, America could have invested in heat pumps, solar hot water and extra insulation, all ideas I enthusiastically support. The almost $2 trillion “Build Back Better” bill could have been a focused effort to insulate houses, upgrade home heating systems, clean and reline chimneys. Build back better could have been just that.

President Biden celebrated record-high gas prices Monday, May 23, gushing that the pump pain was part of “an incredible transition” of the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels. It’s admirable to have a passionate cause you believe in such as combatting global warming. It’s a cause I agree with. But the pursuit of a noble cause does not justify death and destruction along the way. That the ends justify the means was the rationale behind forced collective farming in Ukraine (5 million killed, 1932), the Holocaust in Germany (6 million killed, 1942), forced collectivization in China (25 million killed, 1962) and Cambodia (2 million killed, 1977). To the ideologues who were trying to build a better world the 38 million killed above were just collateral damage. Ditto the citizens of Maine.

Michael Hall earned his degree in economics from the University of Maine and was deployed to Iraq in 2006-07. He lives in Trenton.

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