Nearly 20 years after my first Associated Press byline, I am leaving the global wire service that sent me around the world to become a columnist for the Houston Chronicle, focusing on energy, business and policy. The new leadership team at the Chronicle, Editor Nancy Barnes and Managing Editor Vernon Loeb, are giving me space in the business section to provide readers with context about the industries that make Houston the global energy capital. I am deeply grateful and humbled.
Clearly this would appear on the surface to be a dramatic change in my career path, but I would argue to the contrary. I learned the power of commerce — and the weakness and fecklessness of politics — in Africa.
In a rural Kenyan market, I met a young mother selling tomatoes from her garden to pay school fees for her children, and a young man who traveled two days by bus each way to Nairobi every week to buy plastic washtubs and resell them to help his ailing parents.
I’ve watched street boys buy peanuts wholesale, repackage them in paper cones and sell them to commuters stuck in traffic. They used their profits to scale up to Chinese-made toys that they’d sell to the same captive customers.
One man built a business by purchasing corn at harvest time, storing it until supplies were scarce and then selling it at a profit. I interviewed an unemployed nurse who borrowed $25 and within a year parlayed that investment into a clinic serving dozens of people a day in Africa’s largest slum.
All of these enterprises did more to improve living standards for those involved than any governmental or non-governmental intervention.
Africa also showed me how poor governance, official corruption and unmitigated pollution can spoil the elegance of a free market. Misguided excise taxes, greedy politicians and toothless environmental protections are as destructive to a people or nation as any civil war or natural disaster. Oftentimes all of these things are intertwined.
African business people taught me that every enterprise relies on energy, whether it’s the fertilizer to grow more tomatoes, the fuel for the bus to Nairobi or the electricity to refrigerate the medicines in Tabitha’s clinic. Energy poverty is the biggest obstacle to African development.
And Africa has learned what a curse natural resources can be.
Extractive industries such as oil and gas present special challenges. The global markets, complicated government regulations, huge capital investments and the resource’s portability allow a small number of people to control and export enormous riches, without benefiting the larger population.
Texas is the nation’s leading producer of both renewable energy and petroleum products, earning businesses here hundreds of billions of dollars.
Africa showed me how burning fossil fuels has led to desertification in Ethiopia and rising sea levels in the Seychelles. In Texas, I’ve reported on the governor dismissing climate change science as a liberal plot to destroy the state’s economy.
No one can claim to write authoritatively about energy without reporting on climate change, no matter how uncomfortable that may make the chamber of commerce.
So while I need to learn a lot about the Fortune 500 companies in Houston, how to properly read SEC forms and develop a new source network, I feel confident that I have a well-informed point of view to address the future of energy production and its impact on our world.
I leave the AP on April 8 and join the Chronicle on May 5. I will split my time between Austin and Houston. Please wish me luck on this new undertaking and feel free to critique my column and send ideas my way.