Friday, April 3, 2009

Vive La Trains!

by Armadillo Joe

"Institutional Memory" -- my response to B'way Carl's response to my other post "Protected Class" about the unfairness of the treatment of the UAW workers with regards to their contract when compared to the Obama Administration's response to the AIG contracts -- wound up being as much about those contracts as the larger economic picture for the United States, the planet and the manufacturing sector in a world where energy is getting expensive and the climate is changing.

So, when The Big Guy (that'd be Mr. The Broadway Carl, the proprietor of this'n here establishment) responded to "Institutional Memory" with a lengthy comment addressing the two prongs of my original post, I decided that my response to his response to my response to his response to my original post should also break into two parts.

Therefore, I give you, dear Blog-O-Mania reader...
"Public Transportation and You: Our Future Without Cars -- Part One, about that road trip you mentioned..."

(Part Two, about unions and contracts and social justice in a post-Dubya America, will appear later)
FAIR WARNING: this blog post is long and has many charts and pictures and links. It will probably make your eyes glaze over.

First, some charts & some history.

In 1949, Dr. M. King Hubbert -- a noted geophysicist of the day -- published an academic paper entitled "Energy from Fossil Fuels, Science" in which he predicted that the era of fossil fuels would be very short-lived, which in the car-happy at the dawn of the 1950's was largely ignored outside of university circles. Then, in March of 1956 -- at the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio, Texas -- Dr. Hubbert, now in the employ of the Shell Oil Company, presented the same idea to the petroleum bigwigs of the American Petroleum Institute, with the added doom and gloom that U.S. petroleum production (i.e. - Texas oil production) would peak in 1970 and thereafter decline. Later in life, he predicted that global oil production would peak sometime between 1995 & 2000 and had consumption not declined due to increased efficiencies driven by the energy crises of the 1970's, we might have reached global peak right on Hubbert's schedule. As it is, Hubbert began to be proven right as Texas began capping wells in 1972. A gathering consensus in the scientific community (outside the manipulative employ of the petroleum industry) firmly believes that we have already reached Global Peak Oil in either 2005 or 2006.

The oil shocks of the early 1970's, caused as they were by OPEC manipulating the market, were one result of that loss of control over our own energy policy. If the reserves of the vast North Sea oil fields off the coast of Scotland hadn't come online between 1970 & 1975, and then the Alaskan North Slope done the same in 1977, it wouldn't have been so easy for the political right to belittle the Carter Administration's attempts at a more prudent energy policy as a response to the OPEC shocks and we may not have seen the rise of Reagan here and Thatcher in the UK. Needless to say, our collective history and that of Europe over the last 35-40 years would be very, very different had Scottish & Alaskan petroleum not come available just in the nick of time and enabled the magical thinking on a global, civilization-wide scale we've seen since 1980.

We won't be so lucky again.

The civilization-saving discoveries in Alaska and the North Sea were the last of their kind, a sort of Eureka! moment for those involved, I'm sure, that has not been repeated since. No new large-scale petroleum reserves have come online since North Slope in 1977. Yes, some super-giant fields have been discovered (including Bakken, right underneath our very own Dakotas, and several off the coast of Brazil) but discovering them and bringing them online are two different matters altogether. Yes, Bakken is gi-normous, as are the Brazilian fields, and the Peak Oil deniers point to them as proof that we can keep driving our cars indefinitely, except that for very complicated reasons which amount to the physics of geologic formations (in the case of Bakken) or location, location, location (in the case of the Brazilian fields -- which are in the deep, blue water off the continental shelf), knowing that oil is there does not automatically lead to simply being able to effectively extract it for processing. The vast majority of oil wells aren't "gushers." While such things were once real and somewhat common, and also make for dramatic scenes in movies, they bear as much resemblance to the real world as a Hollywood gun fight. Most of the oil in Bakken is locked up in sedimentary rock or that siren call "oil shale." Until someone invents an undersea oil drilling platform, we don't have the technology to get to the Brazilian oil either. However people may imagine it to take place, actual oil-extraction is not like turning on the spigot in your bathroom: just punch a hole in the ground and let the "Texas Tea" flow forth and then maybe some newfangled contraption can just slurp the rest of it out of that huge, oil-filled cavern in the earth's crust like a milkshake and drink it up. Sorry folks, but that type of oil ran out decades ago. The petroleum left in the ground now is more akin to blood from a stone than from an artery.

What does all this oil mumbo-jumbo really mean? Well, it doesn't mean that the gas pumps will run dry tomorrow forcing us to live with Mad Max beyond The Thunderdome in a Road Warrior existence of a war of all against all -- by this time next year. Not initially, at least.

What we are talking about is Peak Oil.

Simply put, Peak Oil is a general term for the complicated array of ideas surrounding the general principle that global petroleum production is limited by the naturally recoverable supply available in the ground and that, at some point, half of that recoverable oil (the easy-to-get half and not just the available oil) will have been withdrawn, leaving behind it the degraded, hard to extract residue which will be increasingly economically unviable as the EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Investment -- ERoEI or EROI) ratio shrinks to the same levels as ethanol, biofuels and solar. Extracting oil from the Bakken Formation, as oil rich as it is, is so complicated that many knowledgeable people think it will never really come online as a reliable source of domestic crude oil production. Eventually, oil companies won't be able to turn any kind of profit trying to extract shale oil or clean coal or some other pie-in-the-sky cockamamie chunk of magical thinking technology about how to maintain our grossly inefficient, fossil fuel existence. When that happens, one hopes we'll have something in the pipe (so to speak) to replace it as an energy source.

However, don't hold your breath on that, because these guys in lab coats we imagine to be diligently working day and night to figure out how to turn corn sugar into an unlimited energy source aren't actually out there, mixing beakers of brightly-colored liquids together to create some magical oil substitute from corn ethanol or magic sparkle pony dust. We are running smack dab into the limits of basic physics here, the first law of thermodynamics and, even more specifically, the law of conservation of energy, which states that...
...the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant. A consequence of this law is that energy cannot be created or destroyed.
The sun has been pouring energy onto the earth's surface for billions and billions of years and a great deal of that energy has been absorbed by plants or absorbed by animals upon eating those plants, all of whom subsequently died and slowly changed over millions of years into the magical black goo we call "oil." Locked up inside the molecular carbon bonds of this magical black goo is all that accumulated solar energy, which we release when we burn it in an oil furnace or an internal combustion engine. Thus, voilĂ ! An isolated system wherein our energy remains constant, converting from potential energy stored in a molecular and chemical bond to heat energy in an explosion inside an internal combustion engine which converts to kinetic energy through whirling & spinning metal parts into rubber wheels carrying an automobile on a road. The vast geologic timescale and sheer amount of energy input at the front end of this whole process -- the millions of years of sunlight converting via plants and animals into petroleum, etc... -- is what makes petroleum the poster child for non-renewable resources. Once it is gone, it is gone forever, at least as far as we frail little humans are concerned.

What we will need instead is an infrastructure that can effectively use the renewable energy sources that don't destroy the environment and will effectively and efficiently move people and goods around our enormous landscape. And that infrastructure is (say it with me now) SUPERTRAINS!

Either way it goes (easy or hard) the internal combustion engine driving rubber wheels on concrete or blacktop roads to transport humans or goods with maximum convenience directly door-to-door between broadly scattered points on the map is an unsustainable and ultimately failed model for organizing the transportation of a nation's resources. Just because people like the convenience of door-to-door travel won't make it any less environmentally destructive or prohibitively expensive once oil become so expensive to extract, transport, process and distribute that only the very, very wealthy and powerful can own cars or fly in airplanes. Even the rich and powerful keeping fossil-fuel vehicles remains a questionable prospect since the whole petroleum-processing enterprise requires enormous economies of scale to remain viable. Who else could afford to maintain such a vast and expensive oil-processing infrastructure but governments, specifically militaries?

Which is why I believe that, over the next few decades as the last of the oil runs out, the rest of the planet's oil will increasingly be used up by the world's War Machine. This is why the U.S. Army & Marine Corps is in Iraq, folks: because there's no such thing as a solar-powered tank and you can't run a fighter jet on bio-diesel. Our military is there to conduct Blood for Oil, but the oil ain't for you and me to get a cheap flight to Orlando to visit Grampa. The Pentagon is the single largest consumer of petroleum in the United States, which is itself the largest consumer of petroleum in the world, and a juggernaut that rapacious will not easily surrender its stranglehold. In 2004 alone, the United States military, all by itself, used 144 million barrels of oil, more than the entire country of Greece in the same period. Exact numbers are hard to come by, though, because (like the Pentagon budget under George W. Bush) the DESC (the Defense Energy Support Center), the organization tasked with keeping all those tanks and Humvees and jet planes and ships fully gassed-up, keeps its exact consumption numbers classified, presumably for national security reasons. Like a junkie in the last throes of addiction, the gaping maw that is the War Machine of the United States will only release it's deathgrip on the world's oil supply when someone else pries its cold, dead fingers from the spigot. The last drops of fossil fuel on God's green earth aren't going into the car of any civilian, no matter how wealthy. The very last teaspoons of oil used in an internal-combustion engine on planet earth will be burned by a war machine, probably a tank driven into a village somewhere in the American Midwest at the request of the local warlord to suppress a food riot.

Quite an ugly picture, eh? If we don't take steps now to address the broader needs of the next century, then we could be going into this looming mess in just such an ugly way. We have the means with fossil fuel-burning trucks and bulldozers and such to build our rail infrastructure now, right now, and can thus still have a way to move people and materials around this country after the bottom falls out of petroleum as our principle energy source. If we balk at this opportunity now and just build more roads and car-centric infrastructure, those roads will be of absolutely of no use to anyone except the highway robbers raiding caravans of pilgrims journeying between isolated camps of shivering and frightened humans scraping out a meagre existence amid the dead and the dying in the decaying former metropolis' of a post-oil-America that will look a great deal like modern-day Detroit.
"The future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed."
To be clear, though, instead of an overnight "Road Warrior" nightmare, I predict we'll probably see over the next decade or couple of decades a slow winding down of the industrialized fossil-fuel capitalism that has dominated the globe for over a century, particularly the rapacious American-style industrialized fossil-fuel capitalism that has dominated Life on Earth since the end of World War 2. Gradually, consumer goods manufactured abroad or even domestically but in a different time zone will get gradually more expensive and eventually vanish from store shelves altogther, people will travel less and lead more localized lives, economies will get more regionalized and localized by necessity as the constant human need for food and clothing won't abate, a need someone will have to address locally, as well as making and selling other basic consumer goods, since the oil-burning container ships from China won't be able to deliver cheap socks to the Wal-Marts anymore, and people everywhere will wind up living slower, quieter, more intimate and local lives.

Put another way, the world of happily motoring with yourself and one other person across hundred of miles just because it is fast and personally convenient for you will someday be a fantastic tale we'll tell our grandchildren, about that magical time when all those rusting hulks in fields everywhere called "cars" were shiny and new and went Zoom! Zoom! while metal tubes full of people soared through the air, transporting people to far away places, even across oceans! Because, and this statement is a result of my passion for the hope of rail transportation, a happy medium between more trains and fewer cars just so the remaining car owners can enjoy better traffic conditions for themselves is a losing proposition.

Mr. The Broadway Carl says in his comment that:
There will always be a need for automobiles and hopefully in the future less dependence on them, but they will never become obsolete even with the best railway system.
My response is, well, yes there will always be a need for automobiles but that need doesn't logically translate into a guarantee of their continued usefulness. In a world of $40/gal gas, or $50 or $60, who would drive even to the store to get milk and bread? Who would have been able to afford to deliver that bread and milk to the store in the first place, at least with our current transportation infrastructure? A rail alternative could perhaps make a cheaper option, even if it is less convenient with stop-overs and circuitous routes, should such a network even exist in the first place. Rail will not be the curious boutique travel option for people with a fetish for European-style living that its detractors accuse it of being, but rather it will be, wherever it exists, an essential transportation option as gas prices shoot off the charts.

We have a narrow and rapidly closing window now, right now, where we have the petroleum technology of trucks and bulldozers to build a large and (hopefully) less petroleum-intensive transportation network before it becomes too expensive and environmentally destructive to do even that much. Many people will complain that the trains don't serve very well where they live or want to travel, something that makes the Point-A to Point-B abilities of cars unmatched by any other transportation technology and which makes hybrids seem to car-centric thinkers as the solution to our current dilemma of how to maintain the door-to-door convenience of a happy motoring lifestyle. Hybrid cars are manifestly not such a solution because they answer the wrong questions, though the reasons why are numerous enough to merit addressing at another time in another blog post, but the shape of my eventual answer should be obvious from everything else I've written here, today and earlier.

Once again, re-phrased, the inability of trains to be convenient for everyone everywhere in every far-flung place they choose live or visit is not a failure of trains as a technology, but a failure of land-use policies in the United States and a failure of the way we've organized our cities and towns. Even here in New York City, with the best public transportation network in America, so many areas of the five boroughs are choked with cars because the subways aren't close enough to where some people choose to live and the buses are slow and stop too much -- because they are stuck in happy motoring traffic. Sadly for our automobile-drivers (confession: I keep a car even though I live in Manhattan), cities are crowded by definition and something like an automobile is destructive to the fabric of a healthy urban environment for a great many reasons, also to be enumerated later in another blog post. Historically, without the availability of cars when those areas of the five boroughs were laid out, areas away from transportation nodes wouldn't have built up in the way that they did, if ever at all. Of the five boroughs, mostly Staten Island and swaths of Queens are victims of this sort of development, settled and built up as they were in the car-loving decades following World War 2, when Robert Moses -- who, in a twist of historical irony, never had a driver's license -- thought the automobile and an infrastructure to support its widespread use could and would solve all our "problems" (which for him meant poor, dark-skinned people).

But, despite hating-on-cities-and-the-poor-people-who-live-in-them visionaries like Robert Moses, if the options for the citizenry were 1.) walk a long way to the train station to get to work or 2.) walk a short way to the train station to get to work or 3.) walk to work or 4.) ride a bicycle or, um, that's it (period. not negotiable), people would live closer to the train station or walking- or cycling-distance from work. Sure, due to he law of supply & demand, apartments will be smaller and inside taller buildings and the areas around the stations will be more densely-packed, but that's the whole idea. Not everyone gets a 3000 sq/ft house on 1.4 acres, I don't care how much people may or may not like it. The time is coming when they, we, all of us won't have a choice about that because the technology that makes such resource-intensive, short-sighted land-use on a large scale even conceivable is called an automobile and the energy source that makes that technology possible is running out.

Hence my constant carping about cities being walkable and human-scaled. It is much easier to simply build a city this way in the first place, let's face it. Retro-fitting the spread-out sprawl of a place like Phoenix or Dallas or Atlanta to be dense and walkable and less car-dependent is more likely to result in the whole place being abandoned for easier pickins by those who can get out and broken up into small, discreet and economically impoverished townships by those left behind.

Rising petroleum costs will eventually make cars and trucks a thing of the past. We can either, as I said in my previous post, go easy into this post-petroleum world by building a robust train network, reducing sprawl everywhere (not being afraid to just write-off altogether places like the one on the right) and making every attempt to re-localize whole vast sectors of our economy.

Or we can go hard into this post-petroleum world by building more car-friendly roads and freeways and automobile bridges and parking garages with our diminishing natural resources, resigning ourselves to sprawl and thinking of it as natural just because people like it and that's the way we've always done it and never forcing the international corporations that control our economy to re-localize and thus leaving whole regions without sufficient means of food production, clothing and essential consumer goods manufacturing once the easy profit of a petroleum economy evaporates.

Which brings me back around to the whole question of what to do with GM and Chrysler. They are large entities with a vast store of knowledge about how to build machines. Yes, those machines are environmentally destructive exercises in rampant egotism, but nevertheless they are machines.

As I said in my previous posts, the large-scale machine-building know-how within GM & Chrysler are what must be preserved to make the machines we'll need to still have a functioning economy in the approaching post-petroleum world.

So, with all of the above in mind, I'd like to address the Peak Oil-related portions of Broadway Carl's comment point by point:
[...]


I know that you're big on having an amazing railway system and I'm with you on that. But I can't get from point A to point B without auto manufacturing in the picture. And frankly, neither can Europe. Just because they have an awesome railway system doesn't mean they stopped manufactuing cars.
I agree. Cars are nice. The convenience of door-to-door travel is certainly preferable to waiting on a train platform in the rain, but if convenience is the sole criterion for evaluating the value of a transportation method, why not helicopters? It's the 21st Century, dude, where's my flying car? Naturally, a sane person would reply that the fuel consumption and threat to public safety presented by general helicopter (or flying car!) usage rightfully keeps the spread of such transportation technology in check. When considered against the backdrop of a global oil shortage, I must put cars in the same category. Thus, what I'm concerned about here specifically is the future -- not the past.

Over the last 50-60 years -- as America doubled-down on a car-centric, Happy Motoring lifestyle made possible by wide-open spaces and cheap, cheap, cheap oil -- Europe was largely forced by its compact size and already existing urban density to find other, better ways to move people and goods. Today, as our petroleum economy enters its end game, Europe's happy accident of forced rail infrastructure is going to pay dividends. Yes, Europe has still had cars all this time (and some nice ones), but The Continent's economy functioned rather well prior to the oil economy, which gives it an infrastructure that will be relatively adaptable afterwards.
[...]

I think you're also dismissing the fact that the new Obama budget is proposing 21st Century rail transportation as part of the stimulus package. Still, new rail isn't going to happen overnight, and in my estimation, even if we got everything we wanted, I still can't see a world without autos in it. There will never be door to door service by rail across the US. It's feasibly impossible.
I'm not dismissing Obama and the Democrat's nod to the need for railway spending in the 2010 Budget and the stimulus packages. I know that money is there, but I'm arguing that it is not nearly enough to solve our current crisis, to say nothing of countering the looming calamity of Peak Oil. It isn't just what is currently being spent -- and believe me, any money is better than no money -- but correcting our decades-long mis-spending on infrastructure will take a herculean effort. Estimates are that we spend about 97% of our transportation infrastructure dollars on roads and car-supporting technologies. 97%. The current spending plan is even worse, actually. Some estimates are that about $100 billion is set aside for transportation infrastructure, but the stimulus package only sets aside about $1 billion for rail. That 100:1 ratio has got to change.

I understand that a world without cars in it is hard to imagine, but imagine we must. Believe me, changing my thinking was extremely difficult for me because I grew up in the wide open spaces and horrifically space-inefficient land-use of North Texas and Dallas. Oil is only going to get more and more scarce in the approaching decades and while I agree with you that internal combustion engines driving rubber wheels will never disappear completely as method of transport, their viability as the chief means for moving people and goods in America will be forced to end because continuing on the enormous, continental scale we currently do will simply become cost-prohibitive, both economically and ecologically. We can wean ourselves from Happy Motoring willingly with a better rail network and better land-use policies or we can be forced out of our cars when the oil runs out, which is not in the "so distant its practically sci-fi" future, but in the forseeable lifetimes of just about every living human on the planet.
So why can't we have both? The only way a sustainable auto industry will survive is by making cleaner, fuel efficient cars (that's the retooling that needs to happen). Along with that, more job creation can happen on the rail front by making a concerted effort to upgrade and install a new rail system that can alleviate traffic, make daily traveling faster and more affordable and give people a choice of transportation. This can happen in major cities and traveling from city to city, but it'll only get you so far.
The ugly realities of Climate Change and Peak Oil will dictate to us that we can't have both, at least not long term. During the approaching decades, which will be viewed as the era of the post-petroleum transition by future historians, a mixed approach will be the only option.

I have argued in previous posts that the auto industry will not survive as a car-making enterprise, even if they make cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars, we're still in the position of using our rapidly vanishing resources to fetch milk and bread from the 7-11. The auto-makers need to become train-makers to have a future in a post-petroleum world. Their forced re-structuring, happening right now, is an opportunityto make those difficult changes while we still have a window of opportunity. Furthermore, the point of a rail system is not to make life for people who choose to still drive cars easier by alleviating the traffic congestion around them. The point is to move people and goods as efficiently as possible to reduce pollution and carbon footprints and conserve precious energy, wherever we may get it: fossil fuel, solar, hydro-electric, nuclear, etc... In general, for the sake of the planet and the human life on it, people must be forced out of their cars.
Here's an example. Yesterday I drove from Gettysburg, PA to Cincinnati, OH. It took me 8 hours including a stop for dinner. Gettysburg will never have an upgraded fast rail service. Never. But maybe Harrisburg will. Will that connect me to Pittsburgh and then to Columbus, OH and then to Cincy? Can it do it in 8 hours? There will always be a need for automobiles and hopefully in the future less dependence on them, but they will never become obsolete even with the best railway system.

[...]
As someone who grew up driving everywhere to do everything all the time, I understand the seductive convenience of the Happy Motoring lifestyle. It is convenient, very convenient, to be able to drive (at a time of your choosing) from a door in Gettysburg, PA to a door in Cincinnati, OH with only yourself and one passenger -- a feat rail could never hope to replicate -- but that convenience multiplied across the whole of the U.S. economy in a nation of 300+ million people sprawling over an entire continent is unsustainable and utterly destructive to the environment.

In the train-oriented future I imagine, that same trip would involve a complex, over-lapping network of jitney cabs, local street-level rail, passenger regional rail and heavier inter-regional rail. Chances are that a high-speed link would never be built between Gettysburg and Cincy, I admit. But, a bullet train running from New York to Seattle with stops in Pittsburgh and Chicago would connect you to regional networks that would provide a further link to Cincy. Much like our airline industry, but on steel rails and without burning so much fossil fuel. Yes, that kind of travel is less convenient with so many changes and stop-overs, but as a diminishing fossil fuel supply drives gas prices up into the double digits, door-to-door travel will simply be too expensive to continue supporting with our precious infrastructure dollars.

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