Regular gasoline had been selling for about four dollars a gallon at the Speedway convenience store and gas station on State Road 19 in Elkhart, Indiana for most of July. Two miles down the road from Speedway is the Elkhart plant for Monaco Coach, a company that manufactures recreational vehicles. The Oregon-headquartered Monaco Coach announced on July 17 that the Elkhart plant and two others in nearby Wakarusa and Nappanee would close in September. Fourteen hundred employees would be let go. Monaco Coach had already laid off 500 employees earlier this year. In June, Indiana had the highest jump in unemployment of all 50 states as the rate shot up from 5.3 to 5.8 percent.
Elkhart has been called the RV Capital of the World. More than 100 manufacturers of RVs, mobile homes, tow-behind vehicles and related parts, employing nearly 28,000 people, are located in the Elkhart area, according to Dorinda Heiden of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County. Annual sales total nearly $7.8 billion, noted Heiden. The Monaco Coach plant closings would result in the loss of five percent of the area’s RV workforce.
RV manufacturing and sales is an industry that has been hit especially hard by the steep increase in energy — particularly gasoline — costs. Sales have fallen off dramatically. According the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, shipments to retailers in 2008 have declined by 14 percent through May over last year following a drop of 9.5 percent in 2007 over the previous year.
One presumes that any information regarding the potential of lowering energy costs and restoring lost jobs would be tremendous news in Elkhart and the surrounding area. But this has not been the case as far as the local media outlets have been concerned.
Local businessman Luke Puckett is challenging freshman U.S. Representative Joe Donnelly, a former trial lawyer and business owner, in Indiana’s Second Congressional District. Puckett has made lowering energy prices a key theme of his campaign. To that end, Puckett and six other House challengers — all Republicans — traveled to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the week of July 14 in order to get a first-hand look at the area that holds an estimated 20 billion barrels of petroleum. Donnelly turned down an offer to join the Alaska trip.
FEW PEOPLE have actually visited ANWR, spoken with local Alaskans about oil drilling, and inspected the ongoing oil drilling in nearby Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska. Puckett did just that. Yet, when he returned to northern Indiana on July 18, the day after the announced Monaco Coach plant closings, nearly all of the local media studiously avoided any mention of Puckett’s trip and his findings.
Puckett believes “ANWR is the tipping point” to achieving energy independence in America. If the U.S. starts drilling for oil in ANWR, he explains, then everything else will fall into place. Puckett estimates that shale oil excavation, outer-continental shelf drilling and new refinery construction would soon follow.
Progress toward energy independence in the U.S. has been stymied for more than three decades as the environmental movement has successfully blocked efforts to increase oil exploration, drilling, and refining. This could all change, Puckett believes, if the federal prohibition on oil drilling in ANWR were lifted.
Puckett made the rounds to local media outlets on July 18 to personally deliver a press release following his trip and to offer to speak with reporters. Aside from local NBC affiliate, WNDU-TV, the rest of the area television stations and the area’s major daily newspaper, the South Bend Tribune, ignored reporting Puckett’s trip after he returned. The general managers of WBND-TV ABC 57 and WSBT-TV CBS 22, and South Bend Tribune managing editor Tim Harmon did not respond to requests for comment. WSJV-TV Fox 28 general manager Steve Morris said several interview offers were turned down by Puckett, a claim disputed by Puckett and a staffer who accompanied him to the TV station. After commenting on the interview dispute, Morris added, “Drilling in Alaska has no more of a tie to RV plant closures than it does to the mortgage crisis.”
IS THIS ANOTHER example of media bias or media malfeasance? Puckett states he has the first-hand experience to explode “the myths that are out there” about ANWR, but he is frustrated that local news outlets have adopted a media blackout of his trip.
For his part, Donnelly states he is in favor of ANWR drilling; however, the Puckett campaign claims Donnelly has been inconsistent in supporting an energy independence agenda. Puckett campaign spokesman Brian Sikma cited several votes by Donnelly, including his June 2007 vote on an amendment (roll call vote #553) to end prohibitions against offshore oil leases in the mid- and south-Atlantic. According to Sikma, Donnelly voted to keep oil lease prohibitions in place. A review of the House voting record shows that Donnelly voted against House Amendment 407. Sikma claims other Donnelly votes “increased the cost of exploration and production of domestic oil” or “prohibit[ed] the extraction of nearly 61 billion barrels of American oil.” A Donnelly campaign staffer promised campaign manager Andrew Lattanner would comment on the votes. Lattanner never called back.
Energy costs and a host of other issues will help Indiana’s Second Congressional District voters decide which candidate should represent them in Congress. However, oil drilling in ANWR may not become a part of the debate.