Back in the 1940's the country singer Pete Cassell recorded a song titled "Waiting for Ships that Never Come In". Ever since the collapse of Humboldt County's lumber industry in the mid-1960's, the area's business elite has been hoping for the appearance of a new industrial base, equal in economic terms to the vanished timber bonanza. For various reasons this 50 year old Humboldt dream is like waiting for ships that never come in. Whether it's Arkley's balloon track scheme, a Northern California railroad, a Humboldt Bay deep water port, or a revived Samoa pulp mill, these schemes are all essentially pipe dreams that disregard local realities: geographical isolation, the nature of Humboldt Bay, a lack of local natural resources since the destruction of the original old growth forests. The main reality limit, however, and the one I want to examine here has to do with the future of the world energy supplies.
Today 85% of energy used in the world's economy is derived from three main fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Reserves of all of these, non-renewable energy sources are rapidly depleting. Furthermore, the EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) for these fuels is even more rapidly declining. Replacing this 85% with so-called "green" energy will be a problematic project and the prospect for the future of the world economy is grim. (1) Now while it is true that the larger part of the Samoa mill's operating energy is derived from its internal digesting process, the future success of the mill as an economic enterprise will be inevitably linked with the fate of the world's global economy. Even in the best of times--when energy was abundant and cheap--the Samoa mill struggled to succeed economically. This is evident from a complex chain of ownership: from Georgia Pacific to Louisiana -Pacific, from Louisiana-Pacific to La Pointe Partners, from La Pointe Partners to Evergreen (China's Lee and Mann) and from Evergreen to Freshwater. That's roughly a change in ownership every decade of the mill's existence. Thinking that the Samoa mill can make a go economically in a future shrinking world economy, when it could not in a rosier past is waiting for a ship that won't come in.
Personally, I think our area should work to develop tourism and to attract retirees with stable incomes as a bridge to a long term future of local self-sufficiency- a direction that will be forced on us sooner or later by the coming thermodynamic evolution of human society. This is a plan where Humboldt County's geographic isolation could be an economic plus. A pulp mill scaled for international trade simply does not fit the approaching reality.
(1) Richard Heinberg, "Searching for a Miracle: Net Energy Limits & The Fate of Industrial Society". A Joint Project of the International Forum on Globalization and the Post-Carbon Institute, September 2009.