Sunday, December 18, 2005

One is by rail; two is by sea

The Roanoke Times

December 18, 2005

The United States must prepare for the inevitable day when fuel oil supplies run short. If the White House won't lead, the states should.

Gov.-elect Tim Kaine's transportation listening tour has brought out the rail enthusiasts along the congested Interstate 81 corridor.

The need for massive improvements, including dedicated truck lanes and expensive tolls, could be avoided if only truck traffic were diverted off the highways and onto the railroads, chants the rising chorus of rail enthusiasts.

They have a point. But making the case on congestion alone won't sway the argument.

Running short on fuel oil should. The world, according to energy experts, has either reached or is nearing peak oil supply. That isn't to say that we've pumped oil reserves dry, but that much of it will remain inaccessible to today's technology that would consume as much energy extracting the oil as it would produce.

"Oil peaking represents a liquid fuels problem, not an 'energy crisis' in the sense that term has often been used," said Dr. Robert L. Hirsch, energy consultant and former chairman of the Board on Energy and Environmental Systems at the National Academies, while testifying Dec. 7 before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. "Motor vehicles, aircraft, trains and ships simply have no ready alternative to liquid fuels."

Matthew Simmons, investment banker and author of "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy" warns, "The idea that this (energy crunch ) is just another spike is the greatest myth of all time."

One of Simmons' suggestions to keep the economy from collapsing once fuel oil becomes scarce is to move freight off the highways and ship goods by the more energy-efficient means of rails and barges.

But it is difficult to entice industry and the government to begin thinking that way when fuel remains relatively inexpensive, the state of "our railroads would make Bulgaria embarrassed" and the time to move goods is extended.

Simmons said that shipping freight from San Diego to Portland, Maine, takes 4.5 days by truck, 12.5 days by barge and 25 days by train. With abundant, cheap fuel, the incentive to move off road is nonexistent.

The challenge for leaders is to project the future, energy-efficient modes of transportation and to persuade the public and industry of the need and means to arrive there. That type of leadership is absent from the White House. The Bush administration's Energy Policy Act ignores the impending liquid fuels crunch, and continues pushing Alaska's limited oil reserves as the saving fuel.

The United States cannot afford to wait three more years to get started, which leaves the initiative to the states.

But Virginia, even with Kaine's favorable view of rail improvements, can't rebuild transcontinental lines. The new governor can spur his counterparts in the I-81 corridor to make ready the way for when fuel oil runs short.
Precedents already exist for such alliances, as when states joined together to address greenhouse gas emissions while the administration foolishly pretended global warming was a myth.

Impending fuel shortages are just as real.


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