Observations Observations

September 1, 2000

New England's Fuel Mix

When crude oil prices rise, every U.S. driver grieves. But, as New Englanders noticed last winter, New England is particularly vulnerable. This is because New England is very dependent on oil for residential heating and electricity generation. Oil supplied 51 percent of New England's total energy needs in 1997, compared to 39 percent of the nation's. For residential energy and electricity generation, oil provided 49 percent and 28 percent of New England's demand, respectively, compared to only 13 percent and 2 percent for the nation.

Because New England is far away from fuel supplies, transportation costs weigh heavily in end-user prices. Historically, the availability of good ports and waterways made importing oil from states like Texas and Louisiana and from abroad easy. Back in the 1960s, oil was the cheapest source of energy, and power companies invested heavily in oil-fueled power plants. Oil replaced coal at power plants, because of coal's high transportation costs by rail and truck. Natural gas was not a viable alternative. "New England has been literally ‘at the end of the pipeline' from the south, and supply was often unreliable and capacity constrained,” says Steve Leahy of the New England Gas Association. As a result, end-user prices of natural gas in New England have historically been much higher than in the southern states.

But this picture is changing. New England's dependence on oil has been steadily decreasing since the first oil crisis in 1973. The movement away from oil seems likely to accelerate in the near future. Two new major pipelines from Canada have recently increased the region's supply of natural gas by nearly 40 percent, and provided access to natural gas for the first time for northern rural areas in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Most power plants currently under construction in the region are gas-fueled ones. This is good news. Greater diversity in our fuel sources makes us less vulnerable to swings in the price of any one fuel source.



No Runs, No Hits, Many Errors

In 1989, the Fleer baseball card company produced a Billy Ripken card, which features on the bat's face a phrase best left unprinted here. Word of the card spread among collectors, with the price rising to more than $100. Those hoping to get their hands on the card bought packs of randomly assorted cards at a torrid pace, and some in the industry attributed the 80 percent increase in sales of new cards that year in part to interest generated by the Ripken error.

This was not the first, or last, such mistake. The 1966 Topps Dick Ellsworth card contained a photo of Ken Hubbs, who died in 1964. The 1990 Topps Frank Thomas card, which features no name on the front, is the most valuable error card in recent memory, selling for as much as $1,000. This has led some, such as baseball card dealer John Benedetti of Bay State Coin Company in Boston, to wonder whether baseball card companies knowingly produce, or at least put into circulation, error cards as a way of generating publicity and boosting sales.

Clay Luraschi, a spokesman for Fleer/Skybox International, says the firm didn't produce the Ripken card intentionally and has never produced an error card intentionally, but that he cannot speak for other card companies. Rich Klein, an analyst at Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, an industry price guide, believes that although issuing error cards encourages collectors to spend a lot of money on packs in the short run, any such buying binge won't last long, since companies stop printing the cards for a given season before the next season begins.

Although not everyone is convinced, even cynics agree that baseball card companies have reduced the profitability of error cards by limiting the frequency with which they issue correction cards. In the past, correction cards themselves sometimes became collectible. Fleer issued three correction cards for the 1989 Ripken error, one with the offending phrase whited out, another with it scribbled out, and a third with it blacked out. The whited out version now trades for as much as $30. However, according to Luraschi, the decision to stop producing corrections was largely due to their high cost." The printing process is very expensive and a reprint does not generate enough sales to pay for itself,” he notes.

But the main deterrent to intentionally issuing error cards may be card companies' concern that eventually their customers will lose interest. Who wants to be involved in a pastime in which the key players are making so many errors? –LEE ISTRAILBut the main deterrent to intentionally issuing error cards may be card companies'concern that eventually their customers will lose interest. Who wants to be involved in a pastime in which the key players are making so many errors?