Can Freight Trains be Electrified?

Can Freight Trains be Electrified?

by Alice Friedemann  November 13, 2014

High-speed passenger rail is all the rage, but when it comes to electrification of America’s freight trains there’s almost total silence. Yet Europe and Russia have electrified freight trains, so why not here?

This turned out to be harder to find out than I expected. There are few peer-reviewed, railroad conference, congressional hearings, industry magazines, life cycle analyses, energy returned on invested, government agency, or books and journal articles within the University of California library system on freight electrification in America.

But it soon became clear, that extremely high capital costs, return on investment, and limited grid and generating capacity are the main reasons freight rail hasn’t been electrified in the United States (AAR, Iden 2009). Electrification is “not currently economical for long-haul freight service” (USDOE).

Return on Investment

In Europe, Russia, China, and other countries, the government paid for electric passenger rail and electric freight trains joined the party.

In America, freight railroads are privately owned companies that rank projects by their return on investment or they’ll go out of business. Since railroads are already spending five times more than the average manufacturing company to maintain and improve what they have with a huge chunk of their earnings, there’s no money or return on investment reasons to electrify. From the railroad company’s point of view, electrification is an extremely expensive, high risk proposition.

Perhaps if oil prices were still as high as their peak price in 2008, railroad companies would consider electrification, but since they can pass on the higher cost of diesel to their customers via fuel surcharges, perhaps not.

The only freight electrification project being considered in the United States is a $28 billion dollar project in the Los Angeles area. It would combine electrified passenger trains with trains specifically designed to handle cargo containers on a fully elevated guideway system from Los Angeles area ports to distribution centers about 30 miles away (SCAG 2008, SCAG 2012).

The main argument for freight rail electrification is that it will pay for itself when oil prices rise and electricity prices grow cheaper as renewable power is added to the electric grid. Yet it’s a bold assumption to assume that electricity will fall in price because at this point in time, the energy storage systems needed to store extra wind and solar power and keep the grid stable (Halper) are still not cheap enough, long-lasting enough, or reliable enough (CEC).  Nor is it like the grid will be expanded enough to integrate intermittent power (Wald). Currently the grid is stabilized by fast-reacting natural gas power plants, and it’s possible natural gas production will peak in 2016 or 2017 (Hughes, Powers) and we don’t have enough LNG facilities to import natural gas currently.

Capital Costs: Electrification is WAAAAY too expensive in America

It’s hard to figure out the cost of electrifying America’s freight trains, because most estimates for electrification are for passenger rail, which can be quite expensive —  California’s 520 miles of high-speed rail is estimated to cost $68 billion (Nagourney), which is $130.7 million per mile (times 200,000 miles of freight rail = $26 trillion dollars).

Electrification of freight rail system would cost at least a trillion dollars because freight trains need more electricity than passenger trains since they’re much heavier.  A coal train often weighs over 20,000 tons, but a passenger train is likely to weigh less than 1,000 tons.

The extra weight of a freight train would require 6 to 24 megawatts (MW) of power (8,000-32,000 Horse Power).  This is 4 to 24 times more power than passenger trains need. Light rail can get by on 1 MW or less, a heavy commuter train 3 to 4 MW, and a high-speed intercity train 4 to 6 MW.  And passenger trains need only 25kV lines, but you’d want to have at least  50kV for freight trains to minimize the number of substations (Iden 2009).

When you multiply out the power for just one freight train to many trains over long distances, you’d need a huge amount of power.  For example, you’d need 1,500 MW to go the 2,000 miles between Chicago to Los Angeles, equal to three large conventional power plants (FRA). So with 160,000 miles of tracks, you’d need the equivalent of 240 power plants.  Of course, some of this power already exists, but it’s likely new power plants, over-sized substations, transmission lines, and so on would be need to be built since railway electrification load is one of the most difficult for an electric utility to cope with (Boyd July 2009).

Third rail isn’t an option for freight trains since it’s too dangerous, unable to deliver the high power needed, and easily clogged with leaves and ice.

Some of the costs to electrify include:

  • $125 to $250 billion to replace 25,000 locomotives with $5 million all-electric locomotives (SCAG 2012) or $10 million dollar ALP-45DP dual-mode locomotives (Pernicka) if not more, since these passenger locomotives aren’t powerful enough to haul freight trains.
  • $800 billion to electrify 200,000 miles of railroad tracks with overhead wires, which need to be much higher than anywhere else in the world because of America’s highly energy-efficient double stack trains, which carry twice as much cargo per gallon of fuel. The average cost of three passenger rail projects was $3,980,000 : $3.96 million (SCRRA), $4.55 million (Caltrain), $3.42 million (Metrolinx).
  • Unknown billions to add new power plants, transformers, substations, new infrastructure to unload and load containers now that overhead wires are in the way, raise bridges and tunnels for overhead wires, and so on.

Why Electrify? Diesel-electric locomotives are already electric and more energy efficient than electric locomotives

Diesel-electric locomotives are already electric. They have their own 40% or higher energy efficient diesel engine power station on board (USDOE) instead of hooking up to an external electric distribution system. This is far less cumbersome and expensive than overhead wires or a third rail (James, Smil), and gives diesel-electric locomotives an overall efficiency of 30%.

Conversely, electric locomotives are getting their electricity from inefficient power plants, with a 35.6% average efficiency, plus another 6% loss over transmission and distribution lines. By the time the energy gets to the train wheels, you’ve lost 75 percent of the energy, giving electric locomotives an overall efficiency of 25%.

Since railroads have spent billions of dollars to replace or renovate diesel-electric locomotives to comply with Tier 4 EPA standards, and 69% of electricity is generated with fossil fuels, its arguable how much “greener” electric locomotives are.

Detailed calculations:

  • 30% efficient Diesel-electric locomotives. Diesel engine 40% or more efficient (USDOE) * 92% Generator * 98% rectifier * 92% electric motor * 95% transmission * 95% traction auxiliaries (Hoffrichter) = Vehicle efficiency 30%
  • 25% efficient Electric locomotives. 100% electricity at locomotive * 95% feed cable * 95% Transformer * 97.5% Control system/power electronics * 95% electric motors * 95% transmission * 95% traction auxiliaries = Vehicle efficiency 76% (Hoffrichter) * 35.6% overall average energy efficiency of electric power generation plants (EIA 2012) * 94% transmission and distribution losses (EIA 2014 FAQ2) = Vehicle efficiency 25.4%.
  • 6% average energy efficiency of United States power plants: a) percent of electricity generated by: coal (40), natural gas (28.5), oil (.5), nuclear (19), renewable/other (12) (EIA 2014 A8). b) Average efficiency: coal 32.5%, oil 31%, natural gas 42%, nuclear 32.5%, renewable/other 35.9% (EIA 2014 FAQ1, EIA 2012 8.1, EIA 2014 A6).

Electrify with Batteries? Been there, done that. It didn’t work out.

Railroads have been experimenting with electric locomotives since 1838. In America, 126 battery-operated locomotives have been built, 14 of them battery only, the others had gas or diesel engines as well. Not a single one was a long-haul locomotive. They all were local, yard switcher locomotives that assembled and disassembled trains. What all of these experiments revealed is that batteries weigh a lot, break easily, are difficult to maintain, have little usable power, and often have to be replaced, going beyond expected costs. When pushed beyond their safe depth of discharge, or damaged after a hard coupling, the train might stop running, not such a great thing in a switching yard, but definitely not cool for a long-haul locomotive that breaks down in the middle of nowhere (Iden 2014). Energy storage devices are too expensive and incapable of moving a train a reasonable distance (Vitins).

Batteries for regenerative braking. Locomotives have very little room to put regenerative braking batteries, so instead, a battery tender car coupled-and-connected to the real locomotive, or a separate locomotive devoted only to energy storage would need to be built (Iden 2014).

Trains are completely different from cars or trucks and much harder to drive and it’s much harder to capture regenerative braking energy. A mile-long train can be going downhill, uphill, and level at the same time, requiring train engineer to play the two types of braking system used on trains like a concert pianist or the train might derail.

A train going down the steep Cajon pass grade could generate as much as 2,744 kWh per train, which would require 525 tons of lead-acid batteries to store. That’s a lot of deadweight to haul when the train returns uphill to the Cajon pass (Painter).

Much of the time the train isn’t using the brakes because the ground is flat or slightly undulating.   Only a small minority of tracks known as “hogbacks” can capture regenerative braking, which are steeper uphill and downhill grades about the length of the train.

Other issues with Electrification

Single point of failure. Many events can stop the flow of electricity, causing severe and expensive congestion on the most trafficked routes, such as landslides, earthquakes, high winds, hurricanes, washouts, heat waves, lightning (Smith), locomotive mechanical or electric failure, wires getting struck by vehicles at road crossings, lack of power due to not enough substations, sabotage, terrorist attacks (NAS), and so on. Electric-only locomotives will be stuck wherever they are and need to be rescued by diesel locomotives (SCAG 2012) creating costly and severe congestion on many heavily traveled routes.

It is possible the electric grid won’t always be powerful enough to meet the high energy demands of freight trains.  For example, when there are several trains near each other, peak demand, or the locomotives need a lot of power to go uphill, perhaps 22 MW or more.

Political and institutional hurdles. The SCAG project in Los Angeles will be difficult to implement since it encompasses 6 counties and 197 cities who will want to have a say in the project. Now multiply the complexity of affected local, state, and government agencies by tens of thousands when considering a national-scale project to electrify rail.

Diesel locomotives can’t be beat.  Diesel engines keep getting better, last a long time, are rugged enough to handle rough patches of rail, and can be rebuilt. Many locomotive engines achieve the equivalent of one million miles before overhaul, equal to 36,000 megawatt-hours (USDOE).

Electrification makes more sense for passenger trains since electricity is good for high speeds, acceleration, and frequent stops. Freight trains are the opposite – they are slow, rarely stopping, and need power, not acceleration. Above all, speeding up freight trains wastes energy. Since most of what’s being hauled doesn’t spoil, freight doesn’t need to get anywhere fast. There are about 5 derailments a day in North America. Imagine the damage an 80 million pound electric train derailing at 100 mph would cause, plus the added costs of the overhead wires being pulled down (Boyd). High speeds would also wear out tracks out faster, requiring expensive maintenance.

If fuel cells ever work out, they could be added to existing locomotives, and make electrification obsolete.

Europe’s Freight Trains Suck. Why copy them?

In European countries, trains often can’t go to other countries, because there are three types of rail gauges, four different voltages, eleven different ways of hooking to the overhead wires, and half their rail lines aren’t electric (Iden 2009).

U.S. freight trains haul about seven times more freight than in Europe due to interoperability. American rail freight is perhaps the cheapest in the world, costing half as much as in Europe and Japan.

American freight trains carry far more cargo using far less energy in longer, heavier, double-stacked trains.

Europe’s electric rail is 80% passenger trains that have priority over freight, making cargo delivery less reliable, one of many reasons freight trains hauled 60% of all cargo in 1950 but only 8% now. American trains haul 43% of all freight (by ton-miles).

Electrify just the busiest corridors

Okay, you’re saying there’s no choice, the oil and other liquid substitute fossil fuels (coal, natural gas) are running out. But if affordable and energy efficient electricity energy storage isn’t developed, we’ll run out of electricity too. So you could hedge your bets and build locomotives that can burn diesel fuel and run on electricity, which is a good idea for other reasons as well.

Currently the entire North American system, from Mexico to Canada, is an interoperable network. Railroads share their tracks and other infrastructure with each other.

In the nineteenth century, each railroad had a different gauge, which ironically increased the need for horses because they were needed to haul cargo and people across town to get on the next rail line to continue their journey.

Partial electrification would balkanize trains again (Iden 2009). It would be expensive to swap electric and diesel locomotives at every electric and non-electric border. You’d need double the staff to maintain both electric and diesel infrastructure. And it would delay trains long enough to shift some freight to trucks, because swapping locomotives, pressurizing brake systems, and safety inspections would take 3 to 6 hours (SCAG 2012).

That’s why the railroads have insisted the only acceptable solution is dual locomotives that are both electric and diesel. There is no freight dual-locomotive yet (Boyd April 2009), and it might cost even more since only 500 to 1,000 new locomotives are sold a year made by just a few companies, so there’s no economies of scale. The cheapest route would be to modify an existing diesel-electric locomotive to also be able to be electric only. To do this, you’d need to add a 50 kV step-down transformer weighing 20,000 pounds that takes up 480 cubic feet of space, switch gear, and more to a locomotive that’s already at the maximum height, width, and length and weight limit and running out of space due to new equipment added to comply with EPA tier 4 emissions requirements. Oh, and you want regenerative braking too? That’ll take up even more space (Iden 2009).

Unintended consequences

If we electrify our rail and both fossil fuels as well as electricity become too expensive or scarce, the easiest way to add more power generation might be new coal power plants. This is happening in India now, and could push the world into irreversible climate change and doom us all, according to Veerabhadran Ramanathan, director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and one of the world’s top climate scientists (Harris).

Showstoppers: Capital costs, Credit, Bureaucracy, Regulation, & Overlapping Jurisdiction obstacles.


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AB2514. July2014. Energy Storage system Plan. White Paper Analysis. City of Anaheim.

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Boyd, J. 13 Apr 2009. Challenges Loom for Electric Ideas .

Boyd, J. Jul 1, 2009. CSX Cautious on Electrification.

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Harris, G. 17 Nov 2014. Coal Rush in India Could Tip Balance on Climate Change. New York Times.

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Hughes, J. David. 2014. Drilling Deeper. A reality check on U.S. government forecasts for a lasting tight oil & Shale gas boom. Part 1: Executive Summary. Part 2: Tight Oil. Part 3: Shale Gas. Post Carbon Institute.

Iden, M. April 30, 2009. Engines of Change. Freight Locomotives & Fuels of the Future.

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James, K. Evaluating the Feasibility of Electrified Rail at the Port of LA/LB. June 2011. Metrans Transportation Center project 07-323306.

Kotlikoff, L. Oct 7, 2013. Oh, and By the Way, Our Government is Totally Broke! Forbes.

Metrolinx. Dec 2010. GO Electrification Study Final Report (Toronto Region).

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NAS. 2012. Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System. National Academies of Science.

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Pernicka, J. 2010.Class ALP-45DP Locomotive. Railvolution, volume 10.

Powers, B. 2013. Cold, Hungry and in the Dark: Exploding the Natural Gas Supply Myth. New Society Publishers.

SCAG. May 2008. Regional Transportation Plan. Making the connections. Southern California Association of governments.

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Smith, R.F., et al. May 2008. Electrification of the Freight Train Network from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the Inland Empire. California Department of Transportation.

Stafford, J. 5 Mar 2014. Shale, the last oil and gas train. Interview with Arthur Berman.

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Why You Should Love Trains

Why You Should Love Trains

by Alice Friedemann    November 13, 2014

Trains rock!

Trains are over 4 times more fuel efficient than trucks. On average it takes just 1 gallon to move a ton 473 miles, using just 2% of transportation oil. Trucks suck, burning 46% of transportation oil— 20% medium / heavy trucks, and 26% light trucks (FRA, USDOT 2014b, Davis).

Energy has been so cheap and plentiful we’ve blown our oil wad on gas-guzzling trucks, the limousines of the freight world. They lumber over 4 million miles of roads, often half empty with just the parts needed at a factory and drive back empty for their next haul.

A short-sighted transportation policy that favored energy-gulping trucks has reduced our rail system from 380,000 miles of tracks in 1920 to 140,000. About 45,000 of these miles are short-line tracks run by 500 small rail companies that go to grain elevators, steel mills, stock yards, and other businesses. The other 95,000 miles are the mainline tracks that move freight across the country, run by the seven large class 1 rail companies. These tracks tend to be in better condition and capable of hauling heavier railcars and locomotives than short-line rail.

Trains keep lights burning and bread on the table. Half of what trains haul (by weight) is energy related.

Rail excels at hauling heavy goods like coal and grain long distances (615 miles on average), so much so, that when you multiply weight times miles traveled, trains carry 45% of freight by ton-miles, versus 38% for trucks, yet trucks carry most of the weight overall, about three-quarters of it, because most freight travels less than 250 miles (USDOT 2014a).

Almost 40% of all tons carried by trains are coal, 42% of it from Wyoming, and 93% of U.S. coal will be used to generate electricity.

Trains also carry refined petroleum and coke (2.6%), fracked (tight) oil (2.2%), natural gas based fertilizers (2%) and plastics (2%), ethanol (1.5%), and petrochemicals (1%).

Other major commodities trains haul are chemicals 10%, grain 7%, crushed stone, sand, gravel 7%, food 6%, metals 3%, waste & scrap 2%, pulp/paper 2%, lumber/wood 1%, and import/export containers, which could contain just about anything.

Why not build more railroad tracks to conserve oil?

This seems like a no-brainer:

  • Heavy-duty trucks ruin roads and bridges and don’t pay for 20% of the damage (HR). Moving more freight by rail would save billions of dollars in road maintenance, and reduce road congestion (one train equals several hundred trucks), saving $121 billion in wasted fuel and time (TTI).
  • For every 10% of truck freight switched to rail, another billion gallons of fuel are saved as well as reducing nitrous oxides 80%, particulates 90%, and greenhouse gas emissions by 75% per ton-mile (EPA).
  • Railroad tracks are cheaper to add and maintain, $129,000 per mile (including bridges, land, buildings, wharves, docks, etc. (AAR 2012) versus $327,000 per mile to add and maintain roads (average of USDOT 2010-11-12).
  • Maintaining tracks is $10-$14,000 per mile/year (Liu, TDOT). Resurfacing and restoring roads costs $205,000 per mile/year (USDOT 2010-11-12).

Who’s going to pay for the revolution? Railroads can’t afford to

Trucks, airlines, and barges use highways, airways, and waterways mostly paid for by taxes and the government.

Railroads are incredibly capital-intensive, and private railroad companies pay for nearly everything. Since 1980 railroads have reinvested $550 billion on maintenance and improvements, 40 cents of every revenue dollar, five times more than the average manufacturer (AAR 2014).

On top of that, railroads are spending billions to comply with regulations–about $8 billion on Congress’s Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and billions more to replace or modify locomotives to meet EPA Tier 4 emissions standards.

In 2012 railroads spent $62 billion – here are a few of the costs:

  • $11.5 billion for 3.6 billion gallons of fuel to move cargo 1.7 trillion ton-miles
  • $2.5 billion for 755 locomotives
  • $2.1 billion on materials to maintain 25,000 locomotives, 364,000 freight cars, 160,000 miles of track, 16.5 million ties, replace 6,000 miles of rail, etc.
  • $1.1 billion on signaling systems for safety and to run more trains
  • $1.1 billion on freight railcars
  • $1 billion on ballast– the rocky bed of railroad ties and tracks
  • $600 million to maintain 100,000 railroad bridges

The Government isn’t going to pay for what’s needed either

No money. Every level of government has a huge amount of debt, unfunded liabilities, and nearly-bankrupt pension funds.

Opposition from powerful trucking and road lobby interests. Plus companies and associations that are heavily truck-dependent fight government funding of railroads, although the rail lobby is also powerful and manages to get earmarks from state and federal government.

The Highway trust fund doesn’t have enough money to give to freight rail projects. It’s almost gone bankrupt every year since 2008 (CRS, Keith).

Railroads are private companies, so unless a public benefit is clear, federal and state government agencies are reluctant to fund rail, though it does happen sometimes via earmarks, tax reductions, etc.

Most rail projects happen at the state level. Many states have found it’s cheaper to keep short-line (class 2 & 3) railroads in business maintaining and building roads.

There are many ways to improve railroads

If the money could be found, there are many projects that would also save energy, such as (AASHTO Appendix D, ASCE, FDOT, Keith, USDOT 2010, USDOT 2014b, USGAO, Vigrass):

  • Get rid of roads that cross railroad tracks by relocating tracks, or add bridges or underpasses so trains and highway vehicles don’t have to stop for each other
  • Heighten tunnels and bridges for stack trains, which carry twice as much cargo (containers are stacked two levels high)
  • Put in more short-line tracks between ports and major distribution centers, or along corridors heavily traveled by trucks, and where warehouses and manufacturing are concentrated
  • Divert cargo from trucks to rail or water with better intermodal terminals so it’s faster to move containers from trucks to rail
  • Increase the number of trains by adding another parallel track, or more side tracks where trains can wait for another to pass
  • Reduce distance traveled by punching tunnels through hills, and get rid of curved tracks, which will increase their longevity as well
  • Move train yards out of the way of through traffic
  • States should buy more railcars so farmers can get their grain and produce to markets instead of depending on just-in-time trucking

The European Union’s Marco Polo program has been shifting truck freight to rail and water since 2002. The goal is to shift 30% of road freight going over 185 miles to rail or water by 2030 (EC).

If I were benevolent dictator…

I’d fund the projects above, because by the time oil shocks or the next financial crisis occurs, it’s too late. The market-driven goal of short-term profits over long-term national interest will continue to prevail until it’s too late — the money and energy to build a better rail system won’t be there. Revolutionary thinking about how to rearrange society needs to happen at least 20 years ahead of energy shortages, because drastic changes need to be made (Hirsch).

It’s real simple – when you lose your job, it’s not a good time to buy a new house or buy a new car. A benevolent dictator might seem like an outrageous idea in a democratic society, but it’s the only way to overcome political squabbling, nimbyism, opposition from trucking and road lobbyists, and allocating the necessary funds.

If I were dictator, the first thing I’d do is say “Slow Down!” Slower speeds, more efficient engines, and other improvements could decrease fuel consumption by as much as 75%. Trucks and trains are chunky non-aerodynamic blocks that have to power through increasing air resistance (aerodynamic drag) the faster they go:

  • It takes 4 times the energy to move a train at 80 mph as at 40 mph.
  • At highway speeds, drag is about 65% of fuel consumed by a heavy-duty truck.

High-speed trains? Bah Humbug. Give high-speed and other passenger train funds to freight rail. This is another reason for a dictator, since “freight doesn’t vote”.

It will cost California $68 billion to build 520 miles of high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco (Nagourney). That’s enough for 45,000 miles of rural freight tracks at $1.5 million per mile. Do you want to eat, or do you want to go to Los Angeles?

Instead of passenger rains, use empty freight cars for passengers. As dictator, I will hire stage hands to put in seats as quickly as scenes are changed in the theater, and mattresses during harvest season so hoboes can again ride the rails to gather crops (Street).

Add more miles of short-line and mainline rail. You’d want rail to go to warehouses, factories, distribution centers, large retailers like Costco and Walmart, as well as relocate businesses to be next to rail.

Discourage just-in-time logistics. Change tax incentives so that businesses would prefer to keep large inventories on hand so trucks don’t arrive half empty with just what’s needed for just-in-time manufacturing needs, often returning empty.

Let a million miles of roads revert to gravel to save road maintenance costs.

That would free up money from the Highway trust fund and other sources for rail projects.

We don’t need all these roads: as oil, coal, and natural gas decline world-wide, so too will manufacturing and other trade, leading to reduced needs for freight transportation.

Instead of the congestion feared in transportation analyses, there will be empty roads as increasing unemployment and declining wages make fuel and other goods less affordable.

Add more rail between ports, major urban areas, and inland agricultural regions

Many people in rural areas will migrate to cities because of job losses, high gas prices, or gas stations closing. Fewer trucks will make it to the 80% of towns totally dependent on them as diesel or other fuel substitute prices make their delivery rates unaffordable.

At a time when we ought to be moving towards 50 million farmers (Heinberg 2006), farmers will move to cities as larger, more industrialized farms, continue to drive smaller farms out of business–in 1920 there were 7 million farms; today just 188,000 farms produce nearly two-thirds of agricultural products (USDA 2009). Farm workers will move to urban areas as they continue to lose jobs from more mechanization (Hightower).

Other migrations to cities will include those areas running out of water from drought, topsoil erosion, and declining aquifers (Konikow), and cities swamped by sea level rise such as Miami, New York City, and many in the Gulf region.

If the future repeats the past, then the crumbling of roads, rail, and other infrastructure will make the interior less habitable and people will once again mainly live along coasts and navigable waterways. Until then, to the extent we can stretch out oil supplies for trucks and trains, the interior can remain inhabited and provide food for everyone.

Energy isn’t the main concern in transportation policy

Planning should revolve around moving the most freight for the least energy. Forget about shipper preferences, just-in-time delivery, and speed.

Current transportation studies are mainly concerned with how to accommodate a doubling of freight growth over the next forty years and emphasize prices, customer convenience, greenhouse gas emissions, and just-in-time logistics.

None of them acknowledge the peaking of conventional oil in 2005, flat production since then, the possibility of the end of growth, and the need to conserve fuel as the new basis for the funding freight transportation projects.

Major hurdles and future Gotcha’s

Politically, is it likely a shift from truck to rail and water is likely? Because transportation policy and funding isn’t based on conserving energy, the most likely outcome will be slow, incremental change. Business-as-usual means only about 10% of freight could be shifted from truck to rail or water (USDOE 2013).

Trucking, road, and heavily truck dependent businesses are likely to oppose any expansion of rail that reduces funding for roads.

Getting coordination and investment dollars across private, city, state, federal, tribal, neighborhood, and special interest groups for a national rail plan is a daunting prospect.

Customers care more about speed of delivery and convenient door-to-door service than fuel prices. When energy costs become a factor in delivery prices, it’s too late to do much, since solutions require enormous amounts of energy (i.e. building new liquid fuel infrastructure, better miles-per-gallon trucks, etc.), and the economy is likely to be in a recession with little capital to do much.

Trucks can be more efficient at short distances. The vast majority of freight is moved less than 250 miles. Even if rail and water were improved and expanded, could enough miles be built to shift most of the 90% of cargo traveling short distances from trucks? Could enough rail be built soon enough for there to still be enough fuel to operate locomotives and barges despite exponentially declining fossil fuels? How much arctic, gulf, tar sand, tight, and conventional (imported) oil production are likely? What is the EROI of expanding rail and water versus fuel saved from fewer trucks?

Design for rising sea levels which will swamp railroad tracks and roads, rendering many major ports inaccessible. Much of the rail infrastructure is built around imports and exports from ports. Whatever future plans are made should take this into account since storm surges from rising sea levels will affect transportation by 2050, well within the lifespan of new infrastructure. Some of the most important ports and their road and rail connections will be difficult to fix because they can’t be raised since the land below is subsiding (Gulf coast) or vulnerable to liquefaction after an earthquake, such as Oakland, California and other west coast ports (Biging, Copeland, Heberger).

Large ships can be six times more efficient than rail, and 40 times more efficient than trucks (Smil) so nations across the oceans can be more local than rail or trucks from inland American cities. Our topsoil is younger and in better shape than most other nations, so keeping ports open so that we can trade food for oil (until our rising population grows too great to do so) gives the United States an advantage in competing for shrinking oil exports.

Rail is very vulnerable to sabotage and terrorism. This is also a reason why it would be nice to have more miles of double or alternative tracks, so trains had other routes for when rail was damaged from terrorism, natural disasters, train accidents, or aging infrastructure. Plus having more rail would make maintenance easier (Vigrass).

Food will be the most important cargo rail carries in the future

Famines finally ended in inland regions where crops had failed when railroads, and later trucks, could transport food (Fagan). Even now many poor countries that grow plenty of food, such as India, lose much of it to crops rotting on the ground from lack of transportation to markets.

Until the mid-19th century, America’s economy depended on water transport and two out of three people lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic coast, canals, or navigable rivers. It cost more to move a ton of goods 30 miles inland than across the Atlantic (McPherson). When rail arrived in the 19th century, businesses were able to move to the interior.

About 80% of our food calories (grain, potatoes, meat, dairy, etc.) are grown in the interior, especially the corn and wheat belts. Yet about 80% of the population lives within 100 miles of the coasts. The greatest need for future rail will be to move food to the 400 million people of 2050, most of whom will live hundreds or even thousands of miles away from where their food is grown (US Census).

Currently short line rail is involved in about 50% of all agricultural products even though they only represent only 1% of the ton-miles (Martland). They mainly serve to get food products to the class 1 main tracks (Keith). Even more short rail will be needed in the future to save energy, though studies need to be done to see how much short rail can replace trucks.

Despite the clear need for more short line rail to reduce energy use, some trends are leading to more heavy trucks. For example, new $20 million dollar gigantic grain elevators to load class 1 unit trains that don’t stop until their destination, is making smaller grain elevators and the short lines that go out of business. This in turn has led to a need for much heavier trucks that driving twice or more miles to get to the further away huge grain elevators, destroying rural roads that were never meant for so many heavy trucks.

Rural roads weren’t designed for heavy trucks, which pay for at best for only 60-67% of the damage done on rural roads. The damage loaded semitrailer trucks do to major rural highways is 13.5 times the amount of damage they do to rural interstate highways, and 21 times the damage to minor highways. When counties like Ottawa in Kansas, population 6400, lost rail service, their roads reverted to gravel and maintenance costs increased from $1 to $7 million a year (USDA 2013).

Truck and road lobbies keep trying to raise maximum truck weight levels at state and federal levels. So far they’ve been defeated at the federal level (HR), but many states have allowed trucks over 80,000 pounds. Trucks take business away from short lines because they have the advantage of shorter trip times and can pick up and deliver from any location. Allowing larger trucks would even shift freight from class 1 short and medium distance rail unit trains (Martland).

Perhaps narrow gauge rail within farmland could be used to haul crops to short-line rail, with much smaller and lighter railcars that can be hauled by oxen if need be. Trucks will still be essential but perhaps can be stored locally so drivers don’t need to come from long distances at harvest time. The energy justifications need to be studied since much of rural rail will only needed for part of the year.

Whatever oil exists after the next energy crisis is likely to be rationed to agriculture, if history repeats itself and actions similar to the 1980 Standby Gasoline Rationing Plan are taken. Agriculture was the top priority, followed by high-priority activities such as law enforcement, firefighting, the U.S. postal service, emergency medical services, sanitation, snow removal, telecommunications, utilities and energy production (USDOE 1980).

Some of our rail tracks now will have less purpose in the future, such as when coal production declines world-wide and in the Wyoming Powder River area as the overburden keeps increasing making extraction unprofitable at some point (Glustrom, Heinberg 2010, Rutledge). Perhaps these tracks can be moved to other areas, reused, or recycled.


AAR. 2012. Total Annual Spending. 2012 Data. How Railroads spend their money.  Association of American Railroads. Doesn’t break out maintenance from adding rail, and lumps in many other peripheral infrastructure.

AAR. 2014. Freight Railroad Capacity and Investment.

AASHTO. 2002. Transportation. Invest in America. Freight-rail bottom line report.  American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

ASCE. 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure: Rail. American Society of Civil Engineers.

Biging, G. S. et al. July 2012. Impacts of predicted sea-level rise and extreme storm events on the Transportation Infrastructure in the San Francisco Bay Region. College of Natural Resources, University of California, Berkeley.

Copeland, B, et al. November 24, 2012 What Could Disappear. Maps of 24 USA cities flooded as sea level rises. New York Times.

CRS. Congressional Research Service. December 26, 2012. Funding and Financing Highways and Public Transportation, Report R42877.

Davis, S., et al. 2012. Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 31 (Chapter 2). ORNL-6987 (Edition 31 of ORNL-5198). Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

EC. European Commission. 2011. Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area. Marco Polo II.

EPA. 2004. Highway Diesel Progress Review. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Fagan, B. 2000. The Little Ice Age. How climate made history 1300-1850. Basic Books.

FDOT. 2002. Analysis of Freight Movement Mode Choice Factors. Florida Department of Transportation.

FRA. Federal Railroad Administration. November 19, 2009. Comparative Evaluation of Rail and Truck Fuel Efficiency on Competitive Corridors. ICF International for U.S. Department of Transportation

Glustrom, L. March 18, 2013. The US Coal Industry—How Much Longer? NYU Coal Finance Workshop. Clean Energy Action, Boulder, CO

Heberger, M. et al. May 2009. The Impacts of Sea-Level rise on the California Coast. Pacific Institute.

Heinberg, R. 17 Nov 2006. Fifty Million Farmers. E. F. Schumacher Society Stockbridge Massachusetts.

Heinberg, R., Fridley, D. 18 Nov 2010. The end of cheap coal. Nature, vol 468

Hightower, J. 1978. Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times. Transaction publishers.

Hirsch, R. 2005. Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management. U. S. Department of Enegy.

HR. House of Representatives. 113th congress, 1st session. October 1, 2013. Perspectives from users of the nation’s freight system hearing before the panel on 21st-century freight transportation. Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.

Keith, K. Jan 2013. Maintaining a track record of success. Expanding rail infrastructure to accommodate growth in agriculture and other sectors. TRC Consulting.

Konikow, L.F., 2013, Groundwater depletion in the United States (1900-2008): U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013-5079

Liu, X. et al. 2008. Benefit-cost Analysis of heavy haul railway track upgrade for safety & efficiency. Rail Transportation & Engineering center, University of Illinois.

Martland, C. 2010. Estimating the Competitive Effects of Larger Trucks on Rail Freight Traffic.

McPherson, J. 1988. Battle Cry of Freedom, the civil war era. Oxford University Press.

Nagourney, A. Jan 6, 2014. High-speed train in California is caught in a Political Storm. New York Times.

Rutledge, D.2011. Estimating long-term world coal production with logit and probit transforms. International Journal of Coal Geology: 85

Smil, V. 2010. Prime Movers of Globalization. The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines and the Making the modern World.

Street, R. 2005. Beasts of the Field: A narrative history of California farmworkers, 1769-1913.

TDOT. by Neel Schaffer Inc.. 2005. Task 6. Maintenance requirements. Tennessee Department of Transportation.

TTI. 2012. Urban Mobility Report. Texas Transportation Institute.

US Census. 2012 National Population Projections: Summary Tables 2015-2060.

USDA. Dec 2009. 2007 Census of Agriculture. National Agricultural Statistics Service. U.S. Department of Agriculture.

USDA. Aug 2013. The Effects of Increased Shuttle-Train Movements of Grain and Oilseeds. United States Department of Agriculture.

USDOE. June 1980. Standby Gasoline Rationing Plan. U.S. Department of Energy.

USDOE. March 2013. Freight Transportation Modal Shares: Scenarios for a Low-Carbon Future. Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. U.S. Department of Energy.

USDOT. 2010. National Rail Plan. Moving Forward. Federal Railroad Administration. U.S. Department of Transportation.

USDOT. 2010-11-12. Obligation of Federal-aid highway funds for highway improvements. Average of stats 2010- 2012. Federal Highway Administration.

USDOT. 2014a. U.S. Freight on the Move: Highlights from the 2012 Commodity Flow Survey Preliminary Data.

USDOT. 2014b. Best Practices and Strategies for Improving Rail Energy Efficiency Federal Railroad Administration.

USGAO. U.S. Government Accountability Office. January 2008. Freight Transportation: National Policy and Strategies Can Help Improve Freight Mobility GAO-08-287

Vigrass, J. W. Feb 6, 2007. A proposed National System of Interstate and Defense Railroads, as an infrastructure project for the next fifty years. USDOT. National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

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book list: energy, ecology, evolution, extinction, war, natural resources, carrying capacity, infrastructure, agriculture, politics and more

My long reading list (below) is very long and out-of-date, so I’ve broken it up into reading lists by topic (in progress still).  I encourage you to buy the books and print off the articles on acid-free paper (see Preservation of Knowledge).  If you can’t afford to buy them (used), nearly all of the books or cited books and articles in the references section, are available at the University of California and other university libraries.

Fossil Fuel reading list

Alternative Energy reading list

Vacation reading list


2011 long list

booklist pdf format

booklist word format

booklist excel format

Unformatted book list

The Big Picture                      
Charles A. Hall, Kent Klitgaard Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy     Uses science as the basis of economics – should be the Econ 101 textbook  
Walter Youngquist Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations & Individuals
Garrett Hardin Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos
David Pimentel Food, Energy, and Society
John Perlin A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization
Clive Ponting A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations
Peter Corning Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind
Ward & Brownllee Rare Earth  Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe  
Laurie Garrett Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health
Science & Critical thinking         How we know what we know
Naome Oreskes Merchants of Doubt. How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on Issues from Tobacco smoke to Global Warming
Bill Bryson A Short History of Nearly Everything
James Lawrence Powell The Inquisition of Climate Science
Simon Singh Trick or Treatment. The undeniable facts about alternative medicine.
Skeptic Magazine Critical thinking, philosophy of science, pseudoscience critiques, etc
Natalie Angier The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
R. Barker Bausell Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary & Alternative Medicine
Ray Moynihan Selling Sickness: How the World’s Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies Are Turning Us All Into Patients
Steve Salerno Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless
Robert Davis The Healthy Skeptic: Cutting through the Hype about Your Health
Dietrich Dorner The Logic of Failure
Nicholas Capaldi The Art of Deception: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. How to Win an Argument, Defend a Case, ….
Robert Cialdini Influence: The Art of Persuasion
Carl Sagan The Demon-Haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark
Michael Shermer Why People Believe Weird Things. Pseudoscience, superstition and other confusions
Michael Shermer The Science of Good & Evil : Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, & Follow the Golden Rule
Extinction      How we could drive ourselves and up to 95% of life on earth extinct
Johan Rockström Planetary Boundaries. Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity
Peter Ward The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?
Mark Lynas Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet
Peter Ward Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future
Richard E. Leakey The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind
Michael J. Mills et al Massive global ozone loss predicted following regional nuclear conflict. Apr 8, 2008 PNAS vol. 105#14
Peter Ward The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice Caps
Peter Ward, et. al. Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, And Earth’s Ancient Atmosphere
John Atcheson Methane Burps: Ticking Time Bomb   Dec 16, 2004   Baltimore Sun   (potential for runaway greenhouse?)
James Lovelock The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity
Christian de Duve Genetics of Original Sin. The Impact of Natural Selection on the Future of Humanity.
Poisoned Earth — Land, Air, and Water
Theo Colborn Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story
John McCormick Acid Earth: The Global Threat of Acid Pollution
Jonathan Watts When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind — Or Destroy It
Judith Shapiro Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China
Earth under assault: depletion of resources essential to our survival
David Montgomery Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations
John Opie Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land
Bruce Franklin The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America
Michael Harris Lament For An Ocean: The Collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fishery: A True Story
Richard Ellis The Empty Ocean: Plundering the World’s Marine Life
Robert Glennon Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping & the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters
N. Middleton World Atlas of Desertification
What is our Carrying capacity?
Vaclav Smil Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production
Gever, Kauffman, et al Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades
D. & M. Fisher The Nitrogen Bomb.  April 2001.   Discover magazine
William Catton Overshoot
Mathis Wackernagel Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth
History of Human Ecology
Tim Flannery The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australian Lands and People
Michael Williams Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis
Tim Flannery The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples
Our violent propensities: Can we avoid WW III as energy declines and times get harder?
Steven A. LeBlanc Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage
Lutz Kleveman The New Great Game:  Blood and Oil in Central Asia
Michael Klare Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict
Chalmers Johnson The Sorrows Of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic
Robert Baer Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude
Ahmed Rashid Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia
Peter Turchin War and Peace and War. The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations.
David Berreby Us and Them. Understanding Your Tribal Mind.
Azar Gat War in Human Civilization.
Lawrence Keeley War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage
James Waller Becoming Evil. How ordinary people commit genocide and mass killing
Philip Gourevitch We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
Jack Weatherford Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World
Daniel Goldhagen Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans & the Holocaust
Wrangham & Peterson Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence
Michael Ghiglieri The Dark Side of Man: Tracing the Origins of Male Violence
Richard Rhodes Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist
Giles MacDonogh After the Reich.  The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation.
Oil, Natural Gas,  & Coal: why they’re so difficult to replace, scale, uses, history, etc
Kenneth Deffeyes 1) Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak 2) Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage
Richard Heinberg Blackout. Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis
Heinberg & D. Fridley The End of cheap coal…reserves will run out faster than many believe. 18 Nov 2010, Vol 460, Nature 2010 pp 367-69
T.Patzek & G. Croft A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis    Energy 35 (2010) 3109-3122
Matthew Simmons Twilight in the Desert: the coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy
NY Acad of Sciences Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.  Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci 1219 (2011) pp 73-98
Daniel Yergin The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power   [Pulitzer Prize winner]
The most likely short-term “solutions”               
Robert L. Hirsch Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management
Howard Bucknell III Energy and the National Defense.  
Department of Energy Standby Gasoline Rationing Plan
Why Alternative Energy can’t replace fossil fuels (also see,,
Ted Trainer Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society 
Howard Hayden The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won’t Run the World
Martin Hoffert, et al Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet   1 Nov 2002    Science
U.S.Dept of Energy Vehicle Technologies Program. Energy Storage Research and Development. Annual Progress report 2008
T.Patzek & G. Croft Potential for Coal-to-Liquids Conversion in the United States. Natural Resources Research Vol 18#3 Sep 2009
Sheila Newman (ed) The Final Energy Crisis
Jacqueline Langwith, ed. Opposing Viewpoints: Renewable Energy, vol. 2
Feral Metallurgist Other sources of energy cannot deliver sufficient surpluses to replace the potent portable energy we know as gasoline and diesel. It is not generally understood that poorer quality energy sources can be critically dependent upon oil for their extraction, processing and distribution. In other words, oil is the precursor for other sources of energy; gas, coal, nuclear, solar, hydro, because these require oil fuel to create and maintain infrastructure. It also gives them the illusion of being “profitable”.
Buckminster Fuller Energy slave unit = avg output of a man doing 150,000 foot-pounds of work per day 250 days per year. In low-energy societies, nonhuman energy slaves are horses, oxen, windmills, riverboats. Now, the average American has more than 8,000 energy-slaves at his or her disposal, and these slaves can work under extreme conditions: no sleep, 5,000° F, at 400,000 pounds per square inch pressure, etc”
Agriculture, transportation, the major feedstock for over half a million products, heating, cooling, etc.  Fossil fuels allow 6 billion extra people to exist who otherwise wouldn’t be here.
R Udall, S Andrews The Illusive Bonanza: Oil Shale in Colorado “Pulling the Sword from the Stone”
Jason Makansi Lights Out.  The Electricity Crisis, the Global Economy, and What It Means to You
Richard Munson From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What It Means for the Future of Electricity
Joseph J. Romm Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate
U.Bossel & B.Eliasson Energy and the Hydrogen Economy   
Alice Friedemann The Hydrogen Economy: Energy and Economic Black Hole 
Alice Friedemann Peak Soil: Why Biofuels are Not Sustainable and a Threat to America’s National Security
D. Pimentel, T. Patzek Ethanol Production Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower
E.ON Netz Corp. E.ON Netz Wind Report 2005
Wind Action Wind power articles and realities
H Hirsch, et al Nuclear Reactor Hazards: Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century
Robert Alvarez Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage   Institute for Policy Studies May 2011
T. Cochran et al It’s time to give up on breeder reactors.  Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  May / June 2010
Michael Dittmar The Future of Nuclear Energy: Facts and Fiction (4 parts)
Richard Wolfson Nuclear Choices: A Citizen’s Guide to Nuclear Technology
Ewen Callaway To catch a wave                                8 Nov 2007 | Nature 450, 156-159
Infrastructure        Our infrastructure was built when oil had EROEI of 40-100. Now it’s falling apart.
Charles Hall et al. Hydrocarbons and the Evolution of Human Culture  20 Nov 2003   Nature 426, pp. 318–22
Brian Hayes Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape
Kate Ascher The Works: Anatomy of a City
ASCE American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.   2009
Env Protection Agency The Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis.  2002.  Office of Water
Rose George The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters
Politics Why it’s so hard to find a way out of our situation: the Human Political Animal
Joel Bakan The Corporation  The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power
Stanton Glantz Tobacco War: Inside the California Battles
Marion Nestle Food Politics  How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
Jack Doyle Taken for a Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and the Politics of Pollution
James C. Scott Seeing Like a State.  How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.
David W. Wolfe Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean
R. Ratta, R. Lal Soil Quality and Soil Erosion
N. Brady, R. Weil The Nature and Properties of Soils
Jeffrey F. Mount California Rivers & Streams. The Conflict between Fluvial Process & Land Use
Sandra Postel Pillar of Sand, Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?
Resource Allocation
David Landes The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor
Jared Diamond Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies     [Pulitzer Prize winner]
Roy Beck & Leon Kolankiewicz The Environmental Movement’s Retreat From Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization (1970-1998). 
Garrett Hardin The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia The Immigration Dilemma: Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons,
Virginia Abernethy Population Politics: The Choices That Shape Our Future
Bill McKibben A Special Moment in History    May 1998    Atlantic Monthly
All links at:   especially those by William Catton about Malthus
Thomas Homer-Dixon Environment, Scarcity, and Violence
Climate Change a.k.a. Global Warming
Spencer R. Weart The Discovery of Global Warming    
John D. Cox Climate Crash: Abrupt Climate Change And What It Means For Our Future
Brian Fagan The Little Ice Age: How climate made history 1300 – 1850
Brian Fagan The Long Summer. How Climate Changed Civilization
The National Academy Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises             
Societies in Decline         What happens after financial and/or energy collapses — how do people cope?  What careers will be best in an outsourced, resourced-depleted world?
Dmitry Orlov Russia: Reinventing Collapse. The Soviet Example and American Prospects
Peter Godwin Zimbabwe: When a Crocodile Eats the Sun Cuba: Going against the grain                 
Dale Allen Pfeiffer North Korea                                             
Stephen Wegren Russia’s Food Policies and Globalization
Timothy Egan The worst hard time: the untold story of those who survived the Dust Bowl    
Collapse      fossil fuels grow food and unlock all other resources and maintain the infrastructure we survive on.    Energy shortages + death by a thousand cuts etc will cause collapse
Robert Constanza, et al Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth
Donella Meadows Nothing is So Powerful As an Exponential Whose Time Has Come
Albert Bartlett Arithmetic, Population, and Energy
Jared Diamond Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Health Care     Take care of yourself, health care will decline as society grows poorer
Merrill Goozner The $800 Million Pill. The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs
Marion Nestle 1) Safe Food     2) What to Eat
David Kessler The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite
Evolutionary Psychology & Biology
Matt Ridley The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation
Judith Harris No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality
Judith Harris The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do
Geoffrey Miller The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature
David Barash Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People
Sarah Hrdy Mother Nature.  A history of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection
What it’s like to be a soldier   
Guy Sajer The Forgotten Soldier
David Finkel The Good Soldiers
Peter Goldman Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us
Stephen Hawking A Brief History of Time
Laurie Garrett The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance
BioInvasion & BioDiversity                         
Michael Novacek, et al The Biodiversity Crisis: Losing What Counts
Gregory Cochran The 10,000 Year Explosion. How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution
Charles Darwin On the Origin of Species & The Descent of Man 
Jonathan Weiner The Beak Of The Finch: A Story Of Evolution In Our Time  [Pulitzer Prize winner]
Claude Combes The Art of Being a Parasite
Nina Jablonski Skin, A Natural History
Carl Zimmer Parasite Rex. Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures
Putting it All Together
Edward O. Wilson Consilience.  The Unity of Knowledge
Industrial Agriculture 
Peter Golob Crop Post-Harvest Handbook Volume 1: Principles and Practice
Eric Schlosser Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
Michael Maren The Road to Hell  The ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity
Steven Stoll The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California
Richard Street Beasts of the Field. A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913.
Richard Walker The Conquest of Bread. 150 years of Agribusiness in California.
Julie Guthman Agrarian dreams. The paradox of organic farming in California
Kimbrell (editor) Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture
Jim Hightower Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times: A report of the Agribusiness Accountability Project on the Failure of America’s Land Grant College Complex
Carolyn Johnsen Raising a Stink: The Struggle over Factory Hog Farms in Nebraska
The Future of Farming
John Jeavons How to Grow More Vegetables: And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine
Jim Bender Future Harvest: Pesticide-Free Farming
B. C. Mollison Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual
The Joys and Hardships of Family Farms
Mildred Kalish Little Heathens. Hard times & high spirits on an Iowa Farm during the great depression.
Barbara Greenwood  A Pioneer Sampler : The daily life of a pioneer family in 1840 (illustrated, good for tweens)
M. R. Montgomery A Cow’s Life  The Surprising History of Cattle
David Masumoto Epitaph for a Peach, Four Seasons on my Family Farm
Gene Logsdon The Contrary Farmer
Natural History
Susan McCarthy Becoming a Tiger: How baby animals learn to live in the wild
Carl Safina Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival
Robert Sapolsky A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons
Barry Lopez Of Wolves and Men
Holldobler & Wilson Journey to the Ants
Claude Combes The Art of Being a Parasite
James Gould Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence
Rolling Back the Clock                                Who knows how far back civilization will go?
Steven Vogel Prime Mover: A Natural History of Muscle
Joanna  Stratton Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier
Ann Greene Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America
Richard White It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own.  A New History of the American West.
Stephen Ambrose Undaunted Courage.  Merriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
Robert Massie Peter the Great: His Life and World
Barbara Tuchman Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century
Jean Gimpel Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages
George Huppert After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe
How Rich Nations Steal From Poor Nations
Susan George Faith and Credit: The World Bank’s Secular Empire
Moises Naim Illicit.  How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy (comment: the poor from the rich)
Stephen J. Pyne Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire
Stephen J. Pyne Burning Bush, A Fire History of Australia
Murry Taylor Jumping Fire.  A Smoke Jumper’s memoir of fighting wildfire
Inventing a New Society                                        What worked, what failed, and why?
Eleanor Agnew Back from the Land: How Young Americans Went to Nature in the 1970s and Why They Came Back
Mark Holloway Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880
Robert Hine California‘s Utopian Colonies
Donald E. Pitzer America‘s Communal Utopias
Helena Norberg-Hodge Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh
What to do
Howard T. Odum The Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies
Ted Trainer The Alternative, Sustainable Society; the Simpler Way
Richard Heinberg The Oil Depletion Protocol : A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism And Economic Collapse
Richard Heinberg Powerdown : Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World
Richard Heinberg The Party’s Over: Oil, war, and the Fate of Industrial Societies
James H  Kunstler The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
Roscoe Bartlett Bartlett heads the peak oil caucus in the House of representatives  3 part series, 1st part: 
Gene Gerue How to find your ideal country home. A comprehensive guide.
Nick Reding Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
Trashing the Planet
Thomas Hayden Trashing the Oceans 
W.Rathje & C.Murphy Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. What our garbage tells us about ourselves
WorldWatch Institute State of the World 2011
Higher Education in America
Murray Sperber Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education
Investment.  You can’t buy your way out of ecological collapse, but you might live longer if you prepare, which requires money
Nicole Foss A Century of Challenges.
Martin Weiss The Ultimate Depression Survival Guide.  How to Protect Your Savings, Boost Your Income, and Grow Wealthy Even in the Worst of Times
William Bonner 1) Financial Reckoning Day  2) Empire of Debt  The Rise of an Epic Financial Crisis
Stephen Leeb The Oil Factor How oil controls the economy & your financial future
Van K. Tharp Safe Strategies for Financial Freedom
John R. Talbot The Coming Crash in the Housing Market
David / Tom Gardner The Motley Fool Investment Workbook (or anything else that makes sense of 10K’s and annual reports)
Death by a thousand cuts. Converging Storms: Cheap energy has hidden how much we’ve overshot carrying capacity and provided the energy to rebuild after hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, storms, and other natural disasters.
Donella Meadows The Limits to Growth: The 30 year update
Edward O. Wilson 1)  The Future of Life      2) The Diversity of Life
Rick Weiss Ocean species depleted by fishing: Worldwide numbers down 90 percent since the 1950s  May 15, 2003 Washington.Post
Chris Bright Life out of Bounds: BioInvasion in a Borderless World
Laurie Garrett The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance
Dan Fagin Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry manipulates science, bends the law, and endangers your health
Jennifer Viegas 1,000 Times Too Many Humans?   
Tim Radford Two-thirds of world’s resources ‘used up’  
Hopfenberg & Pimentel Human population numbers as a function of food supply.   2001. Environ Dev Sustain 3(1):1-15
Sierra Club First Anniversary of Superfund Bankruptcy
Roger Segelken 40% of world deaths due to environment factors
Thomas Hayden Trashing the Oceans An armada of plastic rides the waves, & sea creatures are suffering         November 4
G. Luft & A. Korin Terrorism Goes to Sea            Nov/Dec 2004  Foreign Affairs
Globalization: will continue for quite a while into navigable ports. Containerized shipping made globalization possible, it will end when these behemoths rust apart.
Marc Levinson The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
Preservation of Knowledge: I hope you put some of these books on your shelves so our descendants know what really happened.  Future political and religious leaders will try to profit and maintain power with their own versions of events.   Hungry, crazed, non-educated people will believe it was caused by demons, sin, God, blacks, Jews, Mormons, liberals, government, etc.
Alice Friedemann Peak Oil and the Preservation of Knowledge


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Statistics: USA Rail, Truck, and Water Transportation

Average Miles of track,
# of Rail Tonnage Length road, or
Carloads 2010 in tons of haul navigable water
Class 1 Rail 29,200,000 1,851,000,000 914 95,700
Class II & III Rail 7,800,000 600,000,000 32 43,000
Truck 8,778,000,000 4,016,000
Inland water 532,000,000 25,320
The U.S. Bureau of Census and U.S. Department of Transportation 2007:
Tons Ton Miles
Total Movements 12,543,000,000 3,345,000,000,000
Single Mode Movements
   Truck 8,779,000,000 1,342,000,000,000
   Rail 1,861,000,000 1,344,000,000,000
   Waterway 404,000,000 157,000,000,000
Multi-mode movements
   Truck/Rail 226,000,000 197,000,000,000
   Truck/Water 145,000,000 98,000,000,000
   Rail/Water 55,000,000 47,000,000,000
   Unknown 1,097,000,000 160,000,000,000
Agriculture-related Shipments—volumes, All modes of transport:
Cereal Grains (02) 514,000,000 tons for 203,000,000,000 ton/miles
Ag Products (03) 212,000,000 tons for   88,000,000,000 ton/miles
Animal Feeds/Proteins (04) 246,000,000 tons for   76,000,000,000 ton/miles
Milled Grain Products (06) 120,000,000 tons for 51,000,000,000 ton/miles
Other Foodstuffs/Oils (07) 468,000,000 tons for 171,000,000,000 ton/miles
Non-agricultural products, all modes of transport by volume
Coal 25%, Chemicals/plastics/rubber 10%, Sand/gravel 7%, Metals/machines 6%, Petroleum/products 5%, wood products 3%, Fertilizer 2%

Source: Keith, K. Jan 2013. Maintaining a track record of success. Expanding rail infrastructure to accommodate growth in agriculture and other sectors. TRC Consulting.

The tables below can be found at these links, and a lot more
Table 2-1. Weight of Shipments by Transportation Mode 2011
(Millions of tons)
Total Domestic Exports Imports
Total 17,622 15,336 895 1,390
Truck 11,301 11,065 107 130
Rail 1,895 1,695 108 92
Water 825 501 75 248
Air, air & truck 17 3 5 10
Multiple modes & mail 1,618 409 547 662
Pipeline 1,652 1,412 6 235
Other & unknown 313 251 48 14
The largest percentage of goods movement occurs close to home. Approximately 50 percent of the weight and 40 percent of the value of goods were moved less than 100 miles between origin and destination in 2007. Less than 10 percent of the weight and 18 percent of the value of goods were moved more than 1,000 miles. Distance, as used in this publication, refers to the Great Circle Distance, which is commonly called “as-the-crow-flies.”
Table 2-3. Total Freight Moved by Distance Band: 2007
Distance Band (miles) Weight Ton-Miles
Percent Cumulative Percent Percent Cumulative Percent
Below 100 51 51 7 7
100–249 19 71 10 17
250–499 11 82 13 29
500–749 5 87 9 39
750–999 4 90 10 49
1,000–1,499 6 96 22 71
1,500–2,000 2 98 14 85
Over 2,000 2 100 15 100
Source:   U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Office of Freight Management and Operations, Freight Analysis Framework, version 3.4, 2012.
65 percent of total tonnage but only 19 percent of the value of goods moved in 2011.
Table 2-4. Top Commodities: 2011
Millions of Tons
Total, all commodities 17,622
Gravel 1,612
Cereal grains 1,574
Natural gas, coke, asphalt 1,507
Coal 1,413
Waste/scrap 1,187
Non-metallic mineral products 1,011
Gasoline 989
Fuel oils 799
Crude petroleum 781
Other foodstuffs 571
Source:   U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Office of Freight Management and Operations, Freight Analysis Framework, version 3.4, 2012.
Table 2-4. Top Commodities: 2011
Billions of Dollars
Total, all commodities 16,804
Machinery 2,078
Electronics 1,289
Motorized vehicles 1,237
Mixed freight 980
Pharmaceuticals 815
Textiles/leather 710
Gasoline 677
Misecllaneous manufactured products 663
Plastics/rubber 611
Other foodstuffs 589
Table 2-7. Domestic Mode of Exports and Imports by Tonnage and Value: 2007
Millions of Tons Billions of Dollars
Total 2,027 3,193
Truck 749 1,968
Rail 279 200
Water 151 54
Air, air & truck 2 206
Multiple modes & mail 149 278
Pipeline 346 137
Other & unknown 51 220
No domestic mode 300 130
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Office of Freight Management and Operations, Freight Analysis Framework, version 3.4, 2012.
Table 2-8. Top 25 Trading Partners of the United States in Merchandise Trade: 2011
Partner Rank Billions of Dollars
Canada 1 596
China 2 503
Mexico 3 461
Japan 4 195
Germany 5 148
United Kingdom 6 107
South Korea 7 100
Brazil 8 75
France 9 68
Taiwan 10 67
Netherlands 11 66
Saudi Arabia 12 61
India 13 58
Venezuela 14 56
Singapore 15 50
Italy 16 50
Switzerland 17 49
Belgium 18 47
Ireland 19 47
Russian Federation 20 43
Hong Kong 21 41
Malaysia 22 40
Nigeria 23 39
Australia 24 38
Colombia 25 37
Top 25 total1 3,041.8
U.S. total trade 3,688.3
Top 25 as % of total 82.5
Source:   U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, TradeStats Express, available at
Table 3-1. Miles of Infrastructure by Transportation Mode
Public roads, route miles 4,059,343
National Highway System (NHS) 164,096
Interstates 47,013
Other NHS 117,083
Other 3,895,246
Strategic Highway Corridor Network (STRAHNET) 62,253
Interstate 47,013
Non-Interstate 15,240
Railroad 139,118
Class I 93,921
Regional 12,804
Local 32,393
Inland waterways
Navigable channels 11,000
Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway 2,342
Oil 171,328
Gas 1,526,400
Key: N = not applicable; NA = not available.
Sources: Public Roads: U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Highway Statistics (Washington, DC: annual issues), tables HM-16 and HM-49, available at as of August 30, 2012. Rail: Association of American Railroads, Railroad Facts (Washington, DC:   annual issues). Navigable channels: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, A Citizen’s Guide to the USACE, available at as of August 30, 2012. Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway: The St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, “The Seaway,” available at as of August 30, 2012. Oil pipelines:   1980-2000:   Eno Transportation Foundation, Transportation in America, 2002 (Washington, DC: 2002). 2001-2009:   U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Office of Pipeline Safety, Pipeline Statistics, available at library/data-stats as of August 30, 2012. Gas pipelines: American Gas Association, Gas Facts (Arlington, VA: annual issues).
Table 3-2. Number of U.S. Vehicles, Vessels, and Other Conveyances
Highway 254,212,610
Truck, single-unit 2-axle 6-tire or more 8,356,097
Truck, combination 2,617,118
Truck, total 10,973,215
Trucks as percent of all highway vehicles 4.3
Class I, locomotive 24,045
Class I, freight cars 416,180
Nonclass I, freight cars 108,233
Car companies and shippers freight cars2 839,020
Water 40,109
Nonself-propelled vessels 31,008
Self-propelled vessels 9,101
Highway: U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Highway Statistics (Washington, DC: annual issues), table VM-1, available at as of August 30, 2012.
Rail: Locomotive: Association of American Railroads, Railroad Facts (Washington, DC: annual issues).
Freight cars: Association of American Railroads, Railroad Equipment Report (Washington, DC: annual issues).
Water: Nonself-propelled vessels and self-propelled vessels: U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Waterborne Transportation Lines of the United States, Volume 1, National Summaries (New Orleans, LA: annual issues).
Table 3-3. Containership Calls at U.S. Ports by Vessel Size and Number of Vessels
Vessel Size (TEUs) 2010
< 2,000 3,709
2,000–2,999 2,761
3,000–3,999 2,053
4,000–4,999 5,881
> 4,999 5,126
Total Calls 19,530
< 2,000 178
2,000–2,999 206
3,000–3,999 130
4,000–4,999 315
> 4,999 396
Total Vessels 1,225
Key: TEU = twenty-foot equivalent unit.
Sources: Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit, Vessel Movements Data Files, 2005-2010 (London: Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit, 2005-2010); Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit, Seasearcher (London: Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit, 2011); and Clarkson Research Studies, Clarkson’s Vessel Registers (London: Clarkson Research Studies, January 2011).
Table 3-7. Trucks and Truck Miles by Average Weight
Average weight (pounds) 2002 Percent Change,         1987 to 2002
Number (thousands) Vehicle Miles Traveled (millions) Number VMT
Total 5,415 145,624 49.4 61.9
Light-heavy 1,914 26,256 85.9 143.8
10,001 to 14,000 1,142 15,186 117.6 179.2
14,001 to 16,000 396 5,908 63.6 115.8
16,001 to 19,500 376 5,161 43.2 99.3
Medium-heavy 910 11,766 18.8 55.2
19,501 to 26,000 910 11,766 18.8 55.2
Heavy-heavy 2,591 107,602 41.7 50.2
26,001 to 33,000 437 5,845 15.9 8.0
33,001 to 40,000 229 3,770 9.7 -8.4
40,001 to 50,000 318 6,698 9.0 -12.2
50,001 to 60,000 327 8,950 73.8 25.1
60,001 to 80,000 1,179 77,489 63.1 70.5
80,001 to 100,000 69 2,950 144.3 135.2
100,001 to 130,000 26 1,571 238.5 257.2
130,001 or more 6 329 43.2 77.9
Key: VMT = vehicle miles traveled.
Notes: Weight includes the empty weight of the vehicle plus the average weight of the load carried. Numbers may not add to totals due to rounding.
Sources:   U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, 2002 Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey: United States, EC02TV-US (Washington, DC: 2004), available at as of August 5, 2012; U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, 1992 Truck Inventory and Use Survey: United States, TC92-T-52 (Washington, DC: 1995), available at as of August 5, 2012.
Most trucks larger than pickups, minivans, other light vans, and sport utility vehicles typically operate close to home. About one-half of all trucks usually travel to destinations within 50 miles of their base, and three-fourths stayed within their base state. Less than 10 percent of trucks larger than pickups, minivans, other light vans, and sport utility vehicles typically travel to places more than 200 miles away, but these trucks account for 30 percent of the mileage.
Table 3-10. Trucks, Truck Miles, and Average Distance by Range of Operations and Jurisdictions: 2002
Number of Trucks (thousands) Truck Miles (millions) Miles per Truck (thousands)
Total 5,521 145,173 26
Off the road 183 2,263 12
50 miles or less 2,942 42,531 15
51 to 100 miles 685 19,162 28
101 to 200 miles 244 11,780 48
201 to 500 miles 232 17,520 76
501 miles or more 293 26,706 91
Not reported 716 25,061 35
Not applicable 226 150 1
Operated in Canada 2 72 43
Operated in Mexico 2 29 19
Operated within the home base state 4,196 84,974 20
Operated in states other than the home base state 496 40,901 83
Not reported 599 19,046 32
Not applicable 226 150 1
Notes: Includes trucks registered to companies and individuals in the United States except pickups, minivans, other light vans, and sport utility vehicles. Numbers may not add to totals due to rounding.
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, 2002 Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey: United States, EC02TV-US, table 3a (Washington, DC: 2004), available at as of August 5, 2012.
Approximately three-fourths of the miles traveled by trucks larger than pickups, minivans, and other light vans are for the movement of products that range from electronics to sand and gravel. Most of the remaining mileage is for empty backhauls and empty shipping containers.
Table 3-11. Truck Miles by Products Carried: 2002
Products carried Millions
of miles
Total 145,173
Animals and fish, live 735
Animal feed and products of animal origin 2,088
Grains, cereal 1,368
All other agricultural products 2,661
Basic chemicals 876
Fertilizers and fertilizer materials 1,666
Pharmaceutical products 305
All other chemical products and preparations 1,351
Alcoholic beverages 1,124
Bakery and milled grain products 3,553
Meat, seafood, and their preparations 3,056
Tobacco products 445
All other packaged foodstuffs 7,428
Logs and other wood in the rough 1,149
Paper or paperboard articles 3,140
Printed products 765
Pulp, newsprint, paper, paperboard 1,936
Wood products 3,561
Articles of base metal 3,294
Base metal in primary or semifinished forms 2,881
Nometallic mineral products 3,049
Tools, nonpowered 7,759
Tools, powered 6,478
Electronic and other electrical equipment 3,024
Furniture, mattresses, lamps, etc. 2,043
Machinery 3,225
Miscellaneous manufactured products 4,008
Precision instruments and apparatus 734
Textile, leather, and related articles 1,538
Vehicles, including parts 3,844
All other transportation equipment 636
Coal 301
Crude petroleum 132
Gravel or rushed stone 2,790
Metallic ores and concentrates 45
Monumental or building stone 462
Natural sands 1,089
All other nonmetallic minerals 499
Fuel oils 1,232
Gasoline and aviation turbine fuel 849
Plastic and rubber 2,393
All other coal and refined petroleum products 1,172
Hazardous waste (EPA manifest) 190
All other waste and scrape (non-EPA manifest) 2,647
Recyclable products 922
Mail and courier parcels 4,760
Empty shipping containers 794
Passengers 274
Mixed freight 14,659
Products, equipment , or materials not elsewhere classified 265
Products not specified 6,358
Not applicable2 150
No product carried 28,977
Notes: Includes trucks registered to companies and individuals in the United States except pickups, minivans, other light vans, and sport utility vehicles.
Source:   U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, 2002 Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey: United States, EC02TV-US (Washington, DC: 2004), available at as of August 5, 2012.
Total private and public fixed assets grew from just over $26.9 trillion in 2000 to nearly $46.4 trillion in 2011 (current U.S. dollars). Transportation equipment and structures (private and public) accounted for nearly 12 percent of the total in 2011. The components of transportation fixed assets and their 2011 values are private transportation equipment ($1.04 trillion), private transportation structures ($680 billion), and government transportation structures ($3.77 trillion).1
1 Fixed assets include both passenger and freight transportation.  See the Bureau of Economic Analysis at, tables 2.1, 3.1s, and 7.1b.
Table 4-1. Transportation Fixed Assets (Billions of dollars)
Private Sector
Transportation Equipment1 1,037
Transportation Structures2 680
Public Sector
Highways 3,132
Transportation Structures2 635
Federal 15
State and Local 621
Key: R=revised.
1Includes trucks, truck trailers, buses, automobiles, aircraft, ships, boats, and railroad equipment.
2Includes physical structures for all modes of transportation.
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Economic Accounts, Fixed Assests Tables, tables 2.1, 3.1s, and 7.1b, available at as of August 30, 2012.


Table 1-1: System Mileage Within the United States (Statute miles)
1960 2001 2009 2012
Highwaya 3,545,693 3,948,335 4,050,717 4,092,730
Class I railb,c 207,334 97,817 93,921 95,391
Amtrakc N 23,000 21,178 U
Commuter railc N 5,209 7,561 7,722
Heavy rail N 1,572 1,623 1,622
Light raile N 897 1,477 1,724
Navigable channelsf 25,000 25,000 25,000 25,000
Oil pipelineg,h U 158,248 175,965 185,569
Gas pipelinei 630,950 1,412,876 1,545,319 1,566,446

a All public road and street mileage in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. For years prior to 1980, some miles of nonpublic roadways are included. No consistent data on private road mileage are available. Beginning in 1998, approximately 43,000 miles of Bureau of Land Management Roads are excluded. 2010 Missouri and Wyoming’s data are 2009. b Data represent miles of road owned (aggregate length of road, excluding yard tracks, sidings, and parallel lines). c Portions of Class I freight railroads, Amtrak, and Commuter rail networks share common trackage. Amtrak data represent miles of road operated. d Transit system length is measured in directional route-miles. Directional route-miles are the distance in each direction over which public transportation vehicles travel while in revenue service. Directional route-miles are computed with regard to direction of service, but without regard to the number of traffic lanes or rail tracks existing in the right-of-way. Beginning in 2002, directional route-mileage data for the Commuter and Light rail modes include purchased transportation. 2005 and later years directional route-mileage data for the Heavy rail mode include purchased transportation. eBeginning in 2011, Light rail includes Light Rail, Street Car Rail, and Hybrid Rail. f These are estimated sums of all domestic waterways which include rivers, bays, channels, and the inner route of the Southeast Alaskan Islands, but does not include the Great Lakes or deep ocean traffic. The Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center monitored 12,612 miles as commercially significant inland shallow-draft waterways in 2001. Beginning in 2007, waterways connecting lakes and the St. Lawrence seaway inside the U.S. are included. g The large drop in mileage between 2000 and 2001 is due to a change in the source of the data. CO2 or other is excluded for 2004 to 2008. h Includes trunk and gathering lines for crude-oil pipeline. i Excludes service pipelines. Data not adjusted to common diameter equivalent. Mileage as of the end of each year. Data includes gathering, transmission, and distribution mains. Prior to 1985 data also include field lines. See table 1-10 for a more detailed breakout of Oil and Gas pipeline mileage. Length data reported in Gas Facts prior to 1985 was taken from the American Gas Association’s member survey, the Uniform Statistical Report, supplemented with estimates for companies that did not participate. Gas Facts length data is now based on information reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation on Form 7100. Since data for 1985 and later years are obtained from the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, data for these years are not comparable with prior years or with numbers published in the previous NTS reports.

Table 4-10: Estimated Consumption of Alternative and Replacement Fuels for Highway Vehicles (Thousand gasoline-equivalent gallons)
1993 2011 Percent
TOTAL fuel consumptiona 135,912,964 171,042,834
Alternative fuels, total 293,334 515,920
Liquefied petroleum gases 264,655 124,457 0.0007
Compressed natural gas 21,603 220,247 0.001288
Liquefied natural gas 1,901 26,242 0.000153
Methanol, 85%b 1,593 N
Methanol, neat 3,166 N
Ethanol, 85%b 48 137,165 0.000802
Ethanol, 95%b 80 N
Electricityc 288 7,635
Hydrogen N 174
Other Fuels N 0
Biodiesel N 910,968 0.005326
Methyl-tertiary-butyl-etherd 2,069,200 0
Ethanol in gasohol 760,000 8,563,841 0.050068
Traditional fuels, total 135,619,630 170,526,914
Gasolinee 111,323,000 130,597,071
Dieself 24,296,630 39,929,843  


KEY:  N = data do not exist; R = revised.

a Total fuel consumption is the sum of Alternative fuels, Gasoline, and Diesel. Oxygenate consumption is included in Gasoline consumption. b The remaining portion of 85% methanol, 85% ethanol, and 95% ethanol fuels is Gasoline. Consumption data include the Gasoline portion of the fuel. c Excludes gasoline-electric hybrids. d Includes a very small amount of other ethers, primarily tertiary-amyl-methyl-ether and ethyl-tertiary-butyl-ether. e Gasoline consumption includes Ethanol in gasohol and Methyl-tertiary-butyl-ether. f Diesel includes Biodiesel.

$5.1 Trillion: Value of all transportation equipment and structures, public and private (trucks, buses, autos, aircraft, ships, boats, railroad and roads, bridges, etc,


Miles of

  • Railroad tracks: 138,524 miles (Class 1, 2, 3), 76,000 rail bridges, 800 tunnels
  • Roads: 4,092,730 miles
  • Oil pipelines: 185,569     Gas pipelines: 1,566,446


Existing Vehicles 2011

  • 192,513,278   Passenger cars, average age 11.4, went 2 TRILLION miles
  • 41,328,144   Light-duty trucks, average age 11.3 went 603 Billion miles
  •    7,819,055    Medium-duty trucks > 10,000 lbs went 105 Billion miles
  •    2,451,638    Heavy-duty trucks traveled 163 Billion miles 5.8 mpg
  •          24,250    Locomotives (class 1) went 500 million miles


New Vehicles bought in 2011 (RITA 1-12)

  • 7,242,000        Passenger Cars, 431,798 hybrids: 445 years to replace fleet
  • 4,641,596        Trucks (light)
  •          473        Railroad Locomotives



  • Lifespan: 27 years old on average
  • Cargo: 53,000 ships carry 80-90% of all cargo using 10% of the world’s oil.
  • Energy: A third of all cargo by weight is oil. TI Class supertankers can carry 3.2 million barrels


  • Cargo: Carry 40% of cargo in ton-miles (weight x distance)
  • Energy: rail tonnage 40% coal, 2.2% oil, 2.6% petroleum & coke, 1.5% ethanol
  • Locomotives: Class 1: 24,250, 473 new ones bought in 2011
  • Freight cars, Class 1, 2, 3: 475,000
  • Diesel fuel: 3.9 billion gallons of diesel/year or 4% of electric generation
  • 3,883,000,000,000 kWh electricity generated 2013 = 95.4 billion gallons of diesel


Table 4-13: Single-Unit 2-Axle 6-Tire or More Truck Fuel Consumption and Travel

Number registered: 8,190,000 @ 7.3 mpg   gallons: 1,428,700,000

Over 26 million trucks (all classes) hauled just under 9 billion tons of freight. Of the more than 26 million trucks, 2.4 million were Class 8 vehicles. Also, there were 5.7 million commercial trailers registered in 2009. All trucks (excluding vehicles used by the government and on farms, but including all weight classes) used for business purposes logged a total of 397.8 billion miles in 2010, which accounted for 13.4% of all motor vehicle miles and 29.8% of all truck miles. According to an analysis by Martin Labbe Associates for ATA, Class 8 trucks drove a total of 99.2 billion miles, which means that, on average, a Class 8 truck drove almost 43,000 miles in 2010, although most long-haul Class 8 tractors travel in excess of 100,000 miles each year. In 2011, trucks (all classes) consumed 52.3 billion gallons of fuel, including both diesel and gasoline. Most heavy-duty trucks run on diesel fuel, which is why over 70% of all fuel burned by trucks is diesel fuel, equating to 37.2 billion gallons annually and 14.8 billion gallons of gasoline

131.2 billion miles logged by all Class 6 – 8 trucks used for business purposes (excluding government and farm) in 2010

Retail truck sales (thousands) grand total 6,951,210

2011 class 1 4,714.1    class 2 1,735.6    class 3 195.3    class 4 10.5  class 5 42.5    class 6 40.7    class 7 41.2    class 8 171.4      TOTAL 6,951.2

Federal Highway-user taxes: $14.3 billion   diesel taxes (58.5%), gas tax (19.3%) retail truck tax 13.2% federal use tax 6.7% and tire tax 2.2%

State Highway-user taxes: of the total $18.7 billion from all sources (cars, etc), $7.4 billion, or 39.5% came from commercial truck diesel taxes.

Table 4-14: Combination Truck Fuel Consumption and Travel

Number registered 2,469,000 @ 5.8 mpg gallons 27,926,000,000

USA Imports: 805 million tons (60% petroleum, 17% manufactured equipment and goods, 6% Chemicals, 5% farm products, 12% other)

USA Exports: 617 million tons (25% Food, 43% petroleum products, coal, and coke, 32% other)

Ton Miles of freight (table 1-50 USDOT RITA)

Truck 44% Train 29% Ship 8%   Pipeline 17% air


Ships use roughly 10 times less energy than railroads, and 20 times less than trucks. Supertankers (Smil).

This is a very rough estimate, because factors like speed, weight, aerodynamics, rolling resistance, diesel engine efficiency, and so on. For example, rail fuel efficiency varies from 156 to 512 ton-miles/gallon, while truck fuel efficiency ranges from 68 to 133 ton-miles/gallon (FRA).

The fuel efficiency of Class I freight rail is 2 to 5.5 times better than that of trucks (ICF), having doubled over the past 30 years (1980–2011) to 480 ton-miles/gallon.

On average, freight trains are 4 times more fuel efficient than trucks, moving a ton of freight for 484 mi per gallon (206 km/l) of fuel (up from 280 mi in 1980)

A loaded freight train is equivalent to removing about 280 trucks, or 1,100 cars, from roads, thereby providing both emissions reduction, as well as congestion relief (USDOT)

FRA. November 19, 2009. Federal Railroad Administration Comparative Evaluation of Rail and Truck Fuel Efficiency on Competitive Corridors. ICF International for U.S. Department of Transportation. 156 pages.

Smil, Vaclav. 2010. Prime Movers of Globalization. The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines and 2014 Making the modern World. Supertankers consume less than 50 kJ/tkm, smaller faster ships 100-150 kJ/tkm, trains 300 to 600 kJ/tkm, heavy trucks between 2000 and 4000 MJ/tkm, and airplanes 30,000 kJ/tkm. kJ= kilojoules tkm =tons per kilometer

USDOT. Jan 2014. Best Practices and Strategies for Improving Rail Energy Efficiency. Federal Railroad Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation.

USDOT BTS. National Transportation Statistics. U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Dreifus, C. Oct 27, 2014. A Chronicler of Warnings Denied: Naomi Oreskes Imagines the Future History of Climate Change. New York Times.

The development of truck and highway technologies in the early 20th century freed business and industry again, this time from the need to locate near rail lines and terminals. A grid of east-west and north-south Interstate highways was built to connect cities and regional economies. Businesses and communities migrated outward from city centers, taking advantage of inexpensive land made newly accessible by the trucking and highway systems. Long-haul trucking captured a large share of east-west freight traffic from the railroads and much of the north-south freight traffic from coastal steamers and river barges. While rail and water continued to serve some traditional markets, trucks were the only way to serve the new suburban and ex-urban markets. Trucking became the dominant mode of freight transportation, and much of the railroad industry shrank into bankruptcy.


Table 8: Ton-Miles by Two-Digit Commodity: 2007
code (1)
Commodity description Ton-miles (2)
All Commodities 3,490,806
15 Nonagglomerated bituminous coal 722,280
02 Cereal grains 280,363
19 Coal and petroleum products, NEC (3) 206,377
07 Other prepared foodstuffs and fats and oils 159,873
32 Base metal in primary or semifinished forms 148,620
20 Basic chemicals 148,281
26 Wood products 134,137
12 Gravel and crushed stone 132,653
17 Gasoline and aviation turbine fuel 129,911
31 Nonmetallic mineral products 123,301
03 Other agricultural products 121,512
24 Plastics and rubber 102,718
27 Pulp, newsprint, paper, and paperboard 80,369
04 Animal feed and products of animal origin, NEC (3) 70,558
18 Fuel oils 65,627
(1) Based on 2-digit code for Standard Classification of Transported Goods (SCTG).
(2) Horizontal lines and color codes are used within the table to group the commodities. Commodities within the same group, or the same color code, cannot be determined to be different statistically from one another.   However, from top to bottom, a change in grouping, or a change in color, denotes a statistical decrease in level of ton-miles, based on statistical significance testing at the 95% confidence level.
(3) NEC = not elsewhere classified.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2007 Commodity Flow Survey, preliminary data table 6, December 2008.

















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Why Nuclear Power is not an alternative to fossil fuels

Richard Heinberg describes nuclear as:

  • In “the realm of scientific imagination, with high odds against it, and terrible downside potential. Problems of safe production, transport, waste disposal, ballooning costs, and limits of uranium supply are not nearly resolved. And nuclear’s “net energy” ratio—the amount of energy produced vs. the amount expended to produce it—is low, putting it squarely into the category of false solution.”
  • The grandest techno-utopian predictions at large today, such as “clean coal,” via carbon sequestration, and “clean nuclear,” via a new “safe 4th generation of reactor design,” have already been revealed as little more than the wild fantasies of energy industries, as they peddle talking points to politicians to whom, on other days, they also supply with campaign cash. There is no persuasive evidence that clean coal, still in the realm of science fiction, will ever be achieved. Most likely it will occupy the same pantheon of technological fantasy as nuclear fusion, not to say human teleportation.

In the USA there are 104 nuclear plants (largely constructed in the 1970s and 1980s) contributing 19% of our electricity.  Even if all operating plants over 40 years receive renewals to operate for 60 years, starting in 2028 it’s unlikely they can be extended another 20 years, so by 2050 nearly all nuclear plants will be out of business.

Since what we face is a liquid fuel crisis for transportation, if there is ever any kind of massive project to get more energy, it’s going to be building coal liquefaction plants like those of Sasol in South Africa, certainly not nuclear plants which have many issues even if the energy crisis weren’t at hand.

If we wanted to keep the share of electricity nuclear contributes at 19%, we’d need to build 21 1.4 GW plants by 2030, and even more if you add in the need to replace old plants that are being retired.

You’d need 24,000 Breeder Reactors, each one a potential nuclear bomb

Assume, as the technology optimists want us to, that in 100 years all primary energy will be nuclear. Following historical patterns, and assuming a not unlikely quadrupling of population, we will need, to satisfy world energy requirements, 3,000 “nuclear parks” each consisting of, say, 8 fast-breeder reactors. These 8 reactors, working at 40% efficiency, will produce 40 million kilowatts of electricity collectively. Therefore, each of the 3,000 nuclear parks will be converting primary nuclear power equivalent to 100 million kilowatts thermal. The largest nuclear reactors presently in operation convert about 1 million kilowatts (electric), but we will give progress the benefit of doubt and assume that our 24,000 worldwide reactors are capable of converting 5 million kilowatts each. In order to produce the world’s energy in 100 years, then, we will merely have to build, in each and every year between now and then, 4 reactors per week! And that figure does not take into account the lifespan of nuclear reactors. If our future nuclear reactors last an average of thirty years, we shall eventually have to build 2 reactors per day to replace those that have worn out.  By 2025, sole reliance on nuclear power would require more than 50 major nuclear installations, on the average, in every state in the union.

For the sake of this discussion, let us disregard whether this rate of construction is technically and organizationally feasible in view of the fact that, at present, the lead time for the construction of much smaller and simpler plants is seven to ten years. Let us also disregard the cost of about $2000 billion per year — or 60 percent of the total world output of $3400 billion — just to replace the worn-out reactors and the availability of the investment capital. We may as well also assume that we could find safe storage facilities for the discarded reactors and their irradiated accessory equipment, and also for the nuclear waste. Let us assume that technology has taken care of all these big problems, leaving us only a few trifles to deal with.

In order to operate 24,000 breeder reactors, we would need to process and transport, every year, 15 million kilograms (16,500 tons) of plutonium-239, the core material of the Hiroshima atom bomb. Only 10 pounds are needed to construct a bomb.  If inhaled, just ten micrograms (.00000035 ounce) of plutonium-239 is likely to cause fatal lung cancer. A ball of plutonium the size of a grapefruit contains enough poison to kill nearly all the people living today. Moreover, plutonium-239 has a radioactive life of more than 24,000 years. Obviously, with so much plutonium on hand, there will be a tremendous problem of safeguarding the nuclear parks — not one or two, but 3000 of them. And what about their location, national sovereignty, and jurisdiction? Can one country allow inadequate protection in a neighboring country, when the slightest mishap could poison adjacent lands and populations for thousands and thousands of years? And who is to decide what constitutes adequate protection, especially in the case of social turmoil, civil war, war between nations, or even only when a national leader comes down with a case of bad nerves. The lives of millions could easily be beholden to a single reckless and daring individual. (Mesarovic)

Peak Uranium

Energy experts warn that an acute shortage of uranium is going to hit the nuclear energy industry. Dr Yogi Goswami, co-director of the Clean Energy Research Centre at the University of Florida warns that proven reserves of uranium will last less than 30 years. By 2050, all proven and undiscovered reserves of uranium will be over.  Current nuclear plants consume around 67,000 tonnes of high-grade uranium per year. With present world uranium reserves of 5.5 million tons, we have enough to last last 42 years.  If more nuclear plants are built, then we have less than 30 years left (Coumans).

Uranium production peaked in the 1980s but supplies continued to meet demand because weapons decommissioned after the Cold War were converted commercial fuel. Those sources are now drying up, and a new demand-driven peak may be on the horizon.

The only way we could extend our supplies of uranium is to build breeder reactors.  But we don’t have any idea how to do that and we’ve been trying since the 1950s.

China switched on its 19th nuclear power reactor as it rushes to increase nuclear generation. The country plans to switch on 8.64 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity in 2014 as compared to 3.24 gigawatts of new capacity in 2013. The availability of uranium for China’s nuclear industry is becoming an issue. Beijing may have to import some 80 percent of its uranium by 2020, as compared to the current 60 percent.

They take too long to build

It often takes 10 years to build a nuclear power plant: years to get licensed and fabricate components, then another 4 to 7 years to actually build it. You could argue that some new-fangled kind of reactor could be built more quickly.  But the public is so afraid of reactors that it’s bound to go slowly as protestors demand stringent inspections every step of the way.  The public also is concerned with the issues of long-term nuclear waste storage.  So even a small, simple reactor would have many hurdles to overcome.

Financial markets are wary of investments in new nuclear plants until it can be demonstrated they can be constructed on budget and on schedule. Nuclear plants have not been built in the United States for decades, but there are unpleasant memories, because construction of some of the currently operating plants was associated with substantial cost overruns and delays. There is also a significant gap between when construction is initiated and when return on investment is realized.

They’re too expensive

This excellent article by Joe Romm “The Nukes of Hazard: One Year After Fukushima, Nuclear Power Remains Too Costly To Be A Major Climate Solution” explains in great detail with good quality sources why nuclear power is too expensive a solution now or ever.  And he is not anti-nuclear at all, he sees nuclear as playing a role, but not a large role given how expensive it is.

Some of the points from this article about costs:

  • New nuclear reactors are expensive. Recent cost estimates for individual new plants have exceeded $5 billion (for example, see Scroggs, 2008; Moody’s Investor’s Service, 2008).
  • New reactors are intrinsically expensive because they must be able to withstand virtually any risk that we can imagine, including human error and major disasters
  • Based on a 2007 Keystone report, we’d need to add an average of 17 plants each year, while building an average of 9 plants a year to replace those that will be retired, for a total of one nuclear plant every two weeks for four decades — plus 10 Yucca Mountains to store the waste
  • Before 2007, price estimates of $4000/kw for new U.S. nukes were common, but by October 2007 Moody’s Investors Service report, “New Nuclear Generation in the United States,” concluded, “Moody’s believes the all-in cost of a nuclear generating facility could come in at between $5,000 – $6,000/kw.”
  • That same month, Florida Power and Light, “a leader in nuclear power generation,” presented its detailed cost estimate for new nukes to the Florida Public Service Commission. It concluded that two units totaling 2,200 megawatts would cost from $5,500 to $8,100 per kilowatt – $12 billion to $18 billion total!
  • In 2008, Progress Energy informed state regulators that the twin 1,100-megawatt plants it intended to build in Florida would cost $14 billion, which “triples estimates the utility offered little more than a year ago.” That would be more than $6,400 a kilowatt.  (And that didn’t even count the 200-mile $3 billion transmission system utility needs, which would bring the price up to a staggering $7,700 a kilowatt).


Nuclear plants require huge grid systems, since they’re far from energy consumers. The Financial Times estimates that would require ten thousand billion dollars be invested world-wide in electric power systems over the next 30 years.

Investors aren’t going to invest in new reactors because:

  • of the billions in liability after a meltdown or accident
  • there may only be enough uranium left to power existing plants
  • the cost per plant ties up capital too long (it can take 10 billion dollars over 10 years to build a nuclear power plant)
  • the costs of decommissioning are very high
  • properly dealing with waste is expensive
  • There is no place to put waste — in 2009 Secretary of Energy Chu shut down Yucca mountain and there is no replacement in sight.

Nor will the USA government pay for the nuclear reactors given that public opinion is against that — 72% said no (in E&E news), they weren’t willing for the government to pay for nuclear power reactors through billions of dollars in new federal loan guarantees for new reactors.

Cembalest, an analyst at J.P. Morgan, wrote “In some ways, nuclear’s goose was cooked by 1992, when the cost of building a 1 GW plant rose by a factor of 5 (in real terms) from 1972″ (Cembalest).

There may not be enough uranium to power more than existing plants

Source: Colorado Geological survey

A crisis will harden public opinion against building new Nuclear Power Plants

I wrote this section before the Fukushima disaster, and there will be more disasters as aging nuclear power plants, extended beyond their lifetime and being pushed to produce electricity full-tilt, succumb to many hazards detailed in the Green Peace International report “Nuclear Reactor Hazards“.  It’s only a matter of time before one of our aging reactors melts down.  When that happens, the public will fight the development of more nuclear power plants.  Other factors besides aging that could cause a disaster are natural disasters, failure of the electric grid, increased and more severe flooding, drought, and severe and unstable weather from climate change, lack of staffing as older workers retire with few educated engineers available to replace them.

Even Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, thought Nuclear Power Plants were dangerous and should be put underground for safety in case of a failure and to make clean-up easier.

Five of the six reactors at the Fukushima plant in Japan were Mark 1 reactors. Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric quit after they became convinced that the Mark 1 nuclear reactor design they were reviewing was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident (Mosk).

Nuclear power plants are extremely attractive targets for terrorists and in a war.  Uranium is not only stored in the core, but the “waste” area near the plant, providing plenty of material for “dirty” or explosive atom bombs.

For details, read the original document or my summary of the Greenpeace report.


It’s the wrong kind of energy, we don’t need electricity, we need oil to run the 99% of our transportation that depends on it.

The energy to build, decommission, dispose of wastes, etc., may be more than the plant will ever generate  a negative Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI).  A review by Charles Hall et al. of net energy studies of nuclear power found the data to be “idiosyncratic, prejudiced, and poorly documented,” and concluded the most reliable EROEI information was too old to be useful (results ranged from 5 to 8:1). Newer data was unjustifiably optimistic (15:1 or more) or pessimistic (low, even less than 1:1).  One of the main reasons EROEI is low is due to the enormous amount of energy used to construct nuclear power plants, which also create a great deal of GHG emissions.


“To produce enough nuclear power to equal the power we currently get from fossil fuels, you would have to build 10,000 of the largest possible nuclear power plants. That’s a huge, probably nonviable initiative, and at that burn rate, our known reserves of uranium would last only for 10 or 20 years.” (Goodstein).

The range of estimated uranium reserves left ranges widely, varying from 30 to 500 years. But as the concentration of uranium in ore declines (since the best ore is used first), while at the same time the energy to mine, transport, and concentrate the ore is declining, the higher estimates appear to be unlikely.


Nuclear power has been unpopular for such a long time, that there aren’t enough nuclear engineers, plant operators and designers, or manufacturing companies to scale up quickly (Torres 2006).  The number of American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) nuclear certificates held around the world fell from 600 in 1980 to 200 in 2007. There is also an insufficient supply of people with the requisite education or training at a time when vendors, contractors, architects, engineers, operators, and regulators will be seeking to build up their staffs. In addition, 35% of the staff at U.S nuclear utilities are eligible for retirement in the next 5–10 years.

There could be shortages in certain parts and components (especially large forgings), as well as in trained craft and technical personnel, if nuclear power expands significantly worldwide.

There are fewer suppliers of nuclear parts and components now than in the past.

Nuclear Proliferation

Can we really prevent crazed dictators for 30,000 years from using plutonium and other wastes to wage war?  Even if a nuclear bomb is beyond the capabilities of society in the future, the waste could be used to make a dirty bomb.

Meanwhile, reactors make good targets for terrorists who do have the money to hire scientists help them make a nuclear bomb from stolen uranium or plutonium.


Nuclear plants must be built near water for cooling, and use a tremendous amount of water. Scientists are certain that global warming will raise sea levels — about half of existing power plants would be flooded.  Climate change will cause longer and more severe droughts, with the potential for not enough water to cool the plant down, and more severe storms will bring more hurricanes and tornadoes.


Never underestimate NIMBYism, which is already preventing nuclear power plants from being built. The political opposition to building thousands of nuclear plants will be impossible to overcome.

Enough sites for 10,000 Plants?

Are there enough sites to build 10,000 new nuclear plants (near water)? If sea levels are rising, does that lessen the possible building sites even more?

No good way to store the energy

One of the most critical needs for power is a way to store it. Large storage batteries of any kind – for storage or for transportation — have not been invented despite decades of research.

A great deal of the electric power generated would need to be used to replace the billions of combustion engine machines and vehicles rather than providing heat, cooling, cooking power and light to homes and offices. It takes decades to move from one source of power to another. It’s hard to see how this could be accomplished without great hardship and social chaos, which would slow the conversion process down. Desperation is likely to lead to stealing of key components of the new infrastructure to sell for scrap metal, as is already happening in Baltimore where 30-foot tall street lights are being stolen (Gately 2005).

Breeder reactors

  • We’ve known since 1969 that we needed to build breeder reactors to stretch the lifetime of radioactive material to tens of thousands of years, and to reduce the radioactive wastes generated, but we still don’t know how to do this. (NAS)
  • If we ever do succeed, these reactors are much closer to being bombs than conventional reactors – the effects of an accident would be catastrophic economically and in the number of lives lost if it failed near a city (Wolfson).
  • The by-product of the breeder reaction is plutonium. Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. How can we guarantee that no terrorist or dictator will ever use this material to build a nuclear or dirty bomb during this time period?

Nuclear power is Way too Dangerous

Greenpeace has a critique of nuclear power called Nuclear Reactor Hazards (2005) which makes the following points:

1) As nuclear power plants age, components become embrittled, corroded, and eroded. This can happen at a microscopic level which is only detected when a pipe bursts. As a plant ages, the odds of severe incidents increase. Although some components can be replaced, failures in the reactor pressure vessel would lead to a catastrophic release of radioactive material. The risk of a nuclear accident grows significantly each year after 20 years. The average age of power plants now, world-wide, is 21 years.

2) In a power blackout, if the emergency backup generators don’t kick in, there is the risk of a meltdown. This happened recently in Sweden at the Fosmark power station in 2006. A former director said “It was pure luck that there was not a meltdown. Since the electricity supply from the network didn’t work as it should have, it could have been a catastrophe.” Another few hours and a meltdown could have occurred. It should not surprise anyone that power blackouts will become increasingly common and long-lasting as energy declines.

3) 3rd generation nuclear plants are pigs wearing lipstick – they’re just gussied up 2nd generation — no safer than existing plants.

4) Many failures are due to human error, and that will always be the case, no matter how well future plants are designed.

5) Nuclear power plants are attractive targets for terrorists now and future resource wars. There are dozens of ways to attack nuclear and reprocessing plants. They are targets not only for the huge number of deaths they would cause, but as a source of plutonium to make nuclear bombs. It only takes a few kilograms to make a weapon, and just a few micrograms to cause cancer.

If Greenpeace is right about risks increasing after 20 years, then there’s bound to be a meltdown incident within ten years, which would make it almost impossible to raise capital.

It’s already hard to raise capital, because the owners want to be completely exempt from the costs of nuclear meltdowns and other accidents. That’s why no new plants have been built in the United States for decades.

The Energy Returned on Energy Invested may be too low for investors as well. When you consider the energy required to build a nuclear power plant, which needs tremendous amount of cement, steel pipes, and other infrastructure, it could take a long time for the returned energy to pay back the energy invested. The construction of 1970’s U.S. nuclear power plants required 40 metric tons of steel and 190 cubic meters of concrete per average megawatt of electricity generating capacity (Peterson 2003).

The costs of treating nuclear waste have skyrocketed. An immensely expensive treatment plant to cleanup the Hanford nuclear plant went from costing 4.3 billion in 2000 to 12.2 billion dollars today. If the final treatment plant is ever built, it will be twelve stories high and four football fields long (Dininny 2006).


Cembalest, M.21 Nov 2011. Eye on the Market. The quixotic search for energy solutions.  J P Morgan

Coumans, C.  4 Sep 2010. Uranium reserves to be over by 2050. Deccan Chronicle

Dininny, S. 7 Sep 2006. Cost for Hanford waste treatment plant grows to $12.2 billion. The Olympian / Associated Press.

Gately, G. 25 Nov 2005. Light poles vanishing — believed sold for scrap by thieves 130 street fixtures in Baltimore have been cut down. New York Times.

Goodstein, D. April 29, 2005. Transcript of The End of the Age of Oil talk

(Greenpeace) H. Hirsch, et al. 2005. Nuclear Reactor Hazards: Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century

Heinberg, Richard. September 2009. Searching for a Miracle. “Net Energy” Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society. Post Carbon Institute.

Hoyos, C. 19 OCT 2003 Power sector 'to need $10,000 bn in next 30 years'. Financial Times.

Mesarovic, Mihajlo, et al. 1974. Mankind at the Turning Point.  The Second Club of Rome Report.  E.P. Dutton, 1974 pp. 132-135

Mosk, M. 15 Mar 2011. Fukushima: Mark 1 Nuclear Reactor Design Caused GE Scientist To Quit In Protest. ABC World News.

(NAS) “It is clear, therefore, that by the transition to a complete breeder-reactor program before the initial supply of uranium 235 is exhausted, very much larger supplies of energy can be made available than now exist. Failure to make this transition would constitute one of the major disasters in human history." National Academy of Sciences. 1969. Resources & Man. W.H.Freeman, San Francisco. 259.

Peterson, P. 2003. Will the United States Need a Second Geologic Repository? The Bridge 33 (3), 26-32.

Torres, M. “Uranium Depletion and Nuclear Power: Are We at Peak Uranium?”

Wolfson, R. 1993. Nuclear Choices: A Citizen's Guide to Nuclear Technology. MIT Press

Posted in Alternative Energy, Energy, Nuclear Power | Comments Off

Roger Andrews: California public utilities vote no on energy storage

[My comment: Without energy storage, wind, solar, and other electricity generating alternative resources can’t continue to be added to the electric grid, because they make the grid too unstable and prone to blackouts (which can damage the electric grid). To read the energy storage reports from each utility on complying with AB2514 scroll down this page to publicly owned utility reports. My favorite one is from Anaheim]

California public utilities vote no on energy storage

by Roger Andrews, November 5, 2014

In 2002 California set itself an ambitious renewable energy target – a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020.

Whether it will meet it, however, remains an open question because the more intermittent renewable energy California adds the more difficult it becomes to integrate it with the grid. This problem in fact became evident fairly early on, and in an attempt to solve it California in 2010 passed legislation (AB 2514) to encourage its publicly owned utilities to install energy storage – batteries, thermal, flywheels, CAES, pumped hydro (not exceeding 50 MW), whatever worked – requesting them to develop viable and cost-effective plans and submit end-2016 energy storage capacity targets by October 1, 2014. This deadline has now passed, the ballots are in and the submissions from 29 of 31 California publicly owned utilities (two of the links provided don’t work) have been published here (h/t Mark Miller for the link).

And how much energy storage did the 29 utilities commit to?

27.6 MW, equal to roughly 0.1% of their combined peak load. Enough to keep the lights on for maybe a few seconds:

  • Two utilities (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Redding Public Utilities) committed to new storage projects totaling 27.6 MW.
  • Two utilities (Riverside Public Utilities and Vernon Gas and Electric) set targets of zero MW.
  • One utility (Glendale Water and Power) adopted its existing 1.5 MW of installed thermal storage as its target.
  • The remaining 24 utilities declined to set a target, almost all on the grounds that energy storage is cost-ineffective and/or technologically immature.

Most of the submissions consist of copies of Board Resolutions with little or no technical backup. The one from Burbank Water and Power is typical:

A target for Burbank Water and Power to procure energy storage is not appropriate at this time due to lack of fully developed, cost-effective energy storage opportunities.

Although others are a little more specific on costs, such as Roseville Electric:

Staff concluded current storage technologies are 2 to 10 times higher cost than energy from Roseville’s existing portfolio of resources.

and Turlock Irrigation District:

The results of the staff study concluded that energy storage systems are currently not cost effective and in most cases increased cost by millions each year.

Sacramento Municipal Utility District, however, goes into detail. Here’s an excerpt from SMUD’s submission:

Since 2008, SMUD has invested over $30 million dollars in internally and externally funded research to understand and prepare SMUD and its customers for eventual deployment and utilization of energy storage. Staff has been conducting various field demonstrations, studies, and assessments of different storage technologies, used for different applications ranging from transmission scale to distribution scale to customer scale systems. On technical issues, this body of work has assessed technology performance including such factors as efficiency, reliability, and durability. On economic issues, this body of work has assessed capital costs, installation costs, operation costs, value, and cost effectiveness. Additionally through this body of work, staff has assessed grid integration issues and strategies for interconnecting, aggregating, visualizing and controlling storage systems from grid planning and operations perspectives. Based upon this body of research, staff finds the storage applications examined are not cost effective at this time, with the exception of large scale pumped hydro storage.

Which helps SMUD not at all because large-scale pumped hydro is the one storage option California doesn’t allow.

So here we have a near-unanimous vote of no confidence in energy storage from utility professionals whose job it is to supply reliable power to consumers and who understand the realities of the electricity market. From it we can conclude:

    1.  That California is not going to get any meaningful amount of energy storage capacity before 2020.
    2.  That in all likelihood no one else is going to get any either. The economics just aren’t there (pumped hydro excluded).
    3.  That lack of energy storage capacity will continue to limit the grid penetration of non-dispatchable renewable generation for the foreseeable future.

Key excerpts from the submissions of all 29 utilities are listed below for reference. I’ve left the “Whereases”, “Now Therefores” and “Be It Resolveds” out to improve readability:

Alameda Power & Water: (finds) that energy storage systems are not currently viable or cost-effective for Alameda Municipal Power and (recommends) that procurement of energy storage systems be deferred until further justified.

City of Anaheim: ES technologies are relatively new and expensive not to mention vary in maturation and … are space intensive and difficult to site in an urban setting such as Anaheim and … do not assist Anaheim with reducing peak demand as Anaheim is already resourced to meet such demands.

Azusa Light and Water: (C)ommercially available energy storage technologies, although technically feasible, are not cost-effective at present.

(City of Banning – inoperative link.)

Biggs Municipal Utilities: (C)ommercially available energy storage systems are not currently viable and cost effective for the city at this time, and the City is not adopting procurement targets at this time.

Burbank Water & Power: (A) target for Burbank Water and Power (BWP) to procure energy storage is not appropriate at this time due to lack of fully developed, cost-effective energy storage opportunities.

City of Cerritos: The application of utility-owned and operated energy storage technology to serve the City’s electric utility customers over the next three years is more costly than the value of benefits.

City of Colton: Energy storage systems at this time are not economically viable due to their high cost.

Glendale Water & Power: It is recommended that the City Council approve Glendale Water & Power’s current installed energy storage capacity of 1.5 MW as GWP’s energy storage procurement target for the purpose of compliance with California Assembly Bill No. 2514 (2010).

(Healdsburg Electric Department: inoperative link.)

Lodi Electric Utility: has determined that the economics behind energy storage deem it not cost-effective at this time.

City of Lompoc: it is not cost-effective for the City to develop ES procurement targets at this time.

Merced Irrigation District: (S)ince MID does not purchase renewable energy… does not have direct access to, nor does it produce renewable energy for use in its electric retail system separate and apart from the power it purchases …. is not aware of any cost-effective technologies and/or applications that have been identified for the District’s operations, and since energy storage systems are generally intended to be tied to a renewable generation source, there is no purpose for implementing a procurement target for energy storage systems for use within MID’s electric retail service at this time.

Los Angeles Department of Water & Power: There are two projects that are deemed eligible energy storage systems namely, a generation connected storage with a net incremental capacity of 21 MW and an incentivized customer connected storage with a raised peak demand shift of 3MW, and LADWP will primarily rely on these two projects to fulfill its 2016 procurement targets totaling 24MW.

Modesto Irrigation District: has not identified reliability or operational needs that could be met only with energy storage and that would require the adoption of mandatory energy storage procurement targets …. (and therefore adopts) a policy that it is currently not appropriate for the District to adopt formal energy storage procurement targets.

City of Needles: determines that establishing a target for the City of Needles and the Needles Public Utility Authority to procure energy storage systems is not appropriate due to the absence of a clear and present need for energy storage systems.

City of Palo Alto: (A) target for the city of Palo Alto utilities to procure energy storage systems is not appropriate due to lack of cost-effective options.

Pasadena Water & Power: It is not appropriate at this time to establish procurement targets for energy storage systems to be procured by Pasadena Water and Power due to lack of cost-effective viable options.

Pittsburg Power Company (Island Energy): Staff recommends that the Board adopt no energy storage systems for Island Energy since energy storage systems are not feasible or cost-effective for Island Energy’s current operation.

Port of Oakland: Energy storage systems are not viable nor cost effective for the Port at this time.

City of Rancho Cucamonga: The City decline(s) establishing a procurement target for energy storage pursuant to AB 2514 due to the lack of cost- effective energy storage options

Redding Electric Utility: While not legislatively mandated to do so, in June 2012, the Council approved the expansion of REU’s (Thermal Expansion Storage) Program. The TES Program expansion provides for approximately 2 MW of PLS that would be in addition to REU’s existing TES/PLS already procured and installed from 2005 through May 2012 (1.3 MW). In addition, the Program expansion includes contract provisions for 2016-2017 allowing the City to procure additional TES/PLS systems up to 0.8 MW should REU operating conditions warrant more TES/PLS capability. In summary, REU’s energy storage targets for 2016 and 2020 are 3.6 MW and 4.4 MW respectively.

Riverside Public Utilities: Recommend(s) that the City Council adopt an Energy Storage Procurement Target per Assembly Bill 2514 of zero megawatt at this time as none of the viable applications of energy storage technologies/solutions that may benefit RPU are cost effective.

Roseville Electric: Staff concluded current storage technologies are 2 to 10 times higher cost than energy from Roseville’s existing portfolio of resources. In addition, the extent of application benefits remains unproven. Therefore energy storage procurement targets are not appropriate at this time.

City & County of San Francisco: concludes that it is not cost-effective for the SFPUC to adopt an electric storage procurement target at this time.

Sacramento Municipal Utility District: determines that the adoption of energy storage procurement targets is not appropriate at this time due to the lack of viable and cost effective energy storage options prior to the target dates set forth in Assembly Bill 2514.

City of Santa Clara: With the exception of pumped hydroelectric power, very little commercially available energy storage is currently cost-effective.

Truckee-Donner Public Utilities District: finds that energy storage systems are not currently viable and cost effective for this District, and the District is currently not adopting procurement targets.

Turlock Irrigation District: The results of the staff study concluded that energy storage systems are currently not cost effective and in most cases increased TID cost by millions each year.

Vernon Gas & Electric: Vernon Gas & Electric staff recommends that the city adopt energy storage procurement targets of zero megawatt hours by December 31, 2016, and December 31, 2020, because energy storage is not cost- effective, and, therefore, not appropriate for the City and City customers.

City of Victorville: (A) review of existing energy storage technologies did not identify an application that would be cost-effective at this time; however, it is anticipated that energy storage systems will become more commercially tested and cost-competitive with other resources with the passage of time and improvements in technology.

Posted in Electric Grid, Electric Grid, Electricity | 8 Comments

PNAS: Human population reduction is not a quick fix

Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems

by Corey J. A. Bradshaw and Barry W. Brook

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Edited by Paul R. Ehrlich, Stanford University, and approved September 15, 2014

The planet’s large, growing, and over-consuming human population, especially the increasing affluent component, is rapidly eroding many of the Earth’s natural ecosystems.

Society’s only real policy lever to reduce the human population humanely is to encourage lower per capita fertility.

How long might fertility reduction take to make a meaningful impact?

We examined various scenarios for global human population change to the year 2100 by adjusting fertility and mortality rates (both chronic and short-term interventions) to determine the plausible range of outcomes.

Even one-child policies imposed worldwide and catastrophic mortality events would still likely result in 5–10 billion people by 2100.

Because of this demographic momentum, there are no easy ways to change the broad trends of human population size this century.


The inexorable demographic momentum of the global human population is rapidly eroding Earth’s life-support system. There are consequently more frequent calls to address environmental problems by advocating further reductions in human fertility. To examine how quickly this could lead to a smaller human population, we used scenario-based matrix modeling to project the global population to the year 2100. Assuming a continuation of current trends in mortality reduction, even a rapid transition to a worldwide one-child policy leads to a population similar to today’s by 2100.

Even a catastrophic mass mortality event of 2 billion deaths over a hypothetical 5-year window in the mid-21st century would still yield around 8.5 billion people by 2100.

In the absence of catastrophe or large fertility reductions (to fewer than two children per female worldwide), the greatest threats to ecosystems—as measured by regional projections within the 35 global Biodiversity Hotspots—indicate that Africa and South Asia will experience the greatest human pressures on future ecosystems.

Humanity’s large demographic momentum means that there are no easy policy levers to change the size of the human population substantially over coming decades, short of extreme and rapid reductions in female fertility; it will take centuries, and the long-term target remains unclear. However, some reduction could be achieved by mid-century and lead to hundreds of millions fewer people to feed. More immediate results for sustainability would emerge from policies and technologies that reverse rising consumption of natural resources.

Posted in Birth Control, Population, Scientists Warnings to Humanity | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Naomi Oreskes on “The Collapse of Western Civilization”

A Chronicler of Warnings Denied: Naomi Oreskes Imagines the Future History of Climate Change

By Claudia Dreifus, Oct 27, 2014, New York Times

“I get from the scientific community a feeling that things are going from bad to worse. I hear people in private saying gloomy things they never used to say. You now get the sense that many scientists feel we’re approaching a point of no return. It’s depressing.”

Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science at Harvard, but she is attracting wide notice these days for a work of science fiction, “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future,” written from the point of view of a historian in 2393 explaining how “the Great Collapse of 2093” occurred.

She told me, “I can tell you that a lot of what happens — floods, droughts, mass migrations, the end of humanity in Africa and Australia — is the result of inaction to very clear warnings” about climate change caused by humans. The 104-page book was listed last week as the No. 1 environmental best-seller on Amazon.

Q. You are a geologist and historian by trade. How did climate change become the center of your research?

A. Like many people, I used to think the scientific community was divided about climate change. Then in 2004, as part of a book I was doing on oceanography, I did a search of 1,000 articles published in peer-reviewed scientific literature in the previous 10 years.

I asked how many showed evidence that disagreed with the statement made in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report: “Most of the observed warming over the past 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” I found that none did. Zero.

That was astonishing, because if someone like myself had believed that the science was unsettled, what did the ordinary citizen think? I published my finding in Science. The article was called “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.”

It ignited a firestorm. I started getting hate mail. Letters arrived at my university demanding I be fired. At the same time, Al Gore talked about my paper in “An Inconvenient Truth.” Suddenly, I was a hero to the left because of Al Gore and a demon to the right because I was now part of the conspiracy to bring down capitalism. I thought I’d entered a parallel universe

What was actually happening?

I didn’t know it, but when I’d used the word “consensus,” I’d hit a land mine. For those who claim that climate change is a myth, the term “consensus” will — boom! — trigger a backlash. That’s because their strategy is based on spreading the idea that the science is still unsettled. Why? Because if you don’t know for sure there’s a problem, you can’t justify doing anything about it.  As an ad from the coal industry had it, “How much are you willing to pay to solve a problem that may not exist?”

Then I met  Caltech historian Erik Conway. He’d come across material about the campaign to stop ozone depletion by curbing chlorofluorocarbons use. Erik said one of the people attacking me had done the same to Sherwood Rowland, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for his work on ozone depletion.

I did some digging of my own. I learned that my critic was among an informal group of physicists who’d risen to prominence in weapons and rocketry during the Cold War. Though none were climatologists, they became key figures in climate change denial. On the various issues where members of the group had been active — acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change — there appeared to be a playbook drawn from the tobacco wars: Insist that the science is unsettled, attack the researchers whose findings they disliked, demand media coverage for a “balanced” view.

As a historian, I knew I’d stumbled upon something important.  “We’ve got to write a book about this.” I told Erik. It took us five years. Their book is “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.”

What did you discover?

That the battle wasn’t about science, but economics. From reading their papers, you could see that these physicists were very strong believers in the unfettered free market. They believed that without free markets, you couldn’t have democracy.

When we began, we wondered about the common thread linking smoking, acid rain and global warming — what was it? Well, each was a serious problem that the unregulated free market didn’t respond to.

How does the free market prevent acid rain or climate change? It doesn’t. How do we know about the potential harm to individuals or the environment? Because of science. And how does one prevent harm? With regulation. To prevent regulation, we’ve had this campaign of doubt-mongering about science and scientists.


Erik and I had a hard time ending our book because it’s not clear what the remedy is. I don’t think the scientist community alone can solve it. In fact, I think the I.P.C.C. should declare victory and close down Working Group I [which assesses the science of climate change]. They’ve laid down the science. Now it’s time to hand this over to our political, economic and social institutions.

Interestingly, the public is ready. Recent polls show that 70 to 80% of the American public accept that climate change is real and the majority is willing to spend money to act. So now we’re in the larger realm of why American politics have become so dysfunctional.

There are lots of areas where the American people want the government to act, but it doesn’t. A few months ago, after Henry Paulson and colleagues issued their “Risky Business” report, which showed the economic cost of climate inaction, you had Republicans on the Hill saying that climate change was a hoax. And just a few weeks ago, 400,000 people came to New York to have their voices heard about the need for action on climate change.

Why is your new book written in the science fiction genre?

Erik is a big science fiction fan. As historians, both of us have spent a lot of time looking back. That made us wonder how a historian of the future might view the decisions being made today.

Writing in this genre gave us the freedom to extrapolate and show what’s at stake. Our narrator concludes that in the 21st century, the forces of climate denial prevailed.

Do you think that’s likely?

It depends on what day of the week we’re talking about. Five years ago, I thought that most of us would get it. But fossil fuel use is increasing, not decreasing. We should be cutting it down.

Also, I get from the scientific community a feeling that things are going from bad to worse. I hear people in private saying gloomy things they never used to say. You now get the sense that many scientists feel we’re approaching a point of no return. It’s depressing.

Posted in Climate Change, Scientists, Scientists Warnings to Humanity | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Trains Rock! Trucks suck: 4x less efficient. Shift freight from truck to rail

A proposed National System of Interstate and Defense RAILROADS, as an infrastructure project for the next fifty years

by J. William Vigrass

To the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, USDOT Bldg., L’Enfant Plaza, 400 7th St. N.W. Conference Room 4200, Washington, DC,   February 6th, 2007.

NOTE: This is a shortened version of the original text

Background: The scope of the Commission’s mandate is to provide policy direction for infrastructure for the next fifty years. This paper will expand upon the thoughts set forth in my December 7th, 2006 paper and will be confined to the railroad mode because all other modes have numerous advocates for government investment in highways, waterways and airways, all of which are owned by the public sector. All are used by private sector operators which have not invested any of their own capital in the infrastructure provided by government. They pay fuel and other taxes as operating expenses, and said taxes cover but a portion of the government’s investment and maintenance costs. Only the railroad infrastructure is privately owned, maintained and financed. Even though railroad property is devoted entirely to the public interest, the owning companies nonetheless pay real estate taxes on their properties. In urban areas these taxes can be substantial. Railroad freight rates must cover all operating, maintenance and ownership costs, something that competing modes have never had to do.

When railroad companies invest in improvements to their physical plant with internally generated funds, they must be assured of an internal rate of return equal to or better than the cost of borrowing money in the private market. In contrast, when the Corps of Engineers makes improvements to the inland waterways system, the barge operators do not put up any investment dollars. When the FHWA and state DOT’s improve highways, the trucking industry does not have to directly contribute to the investment. This unbalanced situation has led to underinvestment in railroad plant with consequent congestion is many locations. Railroads presently have great difficulty adding new train services and have made it clear that they are unable or unwilling to add timetable slots for additional passenger train services unless the public sector makes capacity available.

At the same time an expanding economy has put pressure on freight railroads to add more service and some new services such as long distance run through trains. The nation’s highways are congested in many places, and the expanding economy has added to the pressure for widening existing Interstates and building new Interstates where they do not now exist. Tests done under the auspices of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) have proven that highway damage is geometrically related to heavy loads. There is good reason to divert heavy loads off highways onto railroads since the latter are engineered to handle heavy loads. With several good reasons to add more railroad service, why has not more been done? The answer is, very simply, the railroads cannot afford to make the necessary investments. Their margin of profit is held down by truck competition for the most part. Common carrier truck rates are held down by the ubiquitous owner-driver who often works for bare wages, fuel, a contribution to maintenance and little or nothing for depreciation.

The trucking industry is using an Interstate and Defense Highway System designed and built since 1956, and incorporating improvements in design from time to time. It is largely an up to date highway system. The enormous capital invested in the Interstate and federal aid highway systems has been generated by motor fuel and other motor vehicle related taxes borne by the entire motoring public. Past studies have found that trucking does not cover about 30% of costs related to truck operation. This allows the trucking industry to offer rates less than their true economic costs. Every time taxes on trucks or trucking have been increased, the industry has lobbied intensely and successfully for increased length and weight limits which in turn allowed rates to remain lower than they otherwise would have been. This has attracted more freight to highways which in turn caused more wear and tear and congestion.

It is recommended that the Congress not approve any more increases in the size or gross weight of motor trucks in interstate commerce.

Trucking uses up to date highways

Railroads use Nineteenth Century Alignments. In contrast, nearly all the US railroad network was designed and built in the 19th Century. Grading was done by manpower, horses and scrapers. Heavy excavation was done by manual drilling (sledgehammers on the drill that someone was holding) and black powder. Such engineering achievements as the Horseshoe Curve, Tehachapi Loop, the Central Pacific (UP) over Donner Pass were all great achievements of that era, but they are circuitous compared to competing Interstate highways. No matter how fast railroad freight trains may run, they must go further than a truck in most cases. Curvature imposes permanent speed restrictions. Histories of those early projects often include drawings of proposed realignments that could not be carried out by the privately owned railroads. Major tunnels had been proposed but not built. Many sharp curves remain although realignments had been planned.

In Europe many kilometers of new high speed railways have been and are being built. Several Base Tunnels are being built for railway use under the Alps and other mountainous barriers. These are:
1. Lötschberg base tunnel – portals at Frutigen and Raron  in Switzerland.  21.6 miles in length. 2. Gotthard base tunnel – portals at Erstfeld and Biasca  35.6 miles in length. Scheduled to open 2015-2017. They are running into geological problems. 3. Combination bridge/tunnels connecting Sweden to Denmark provide an all rail connection between Scandinavia and Europe. 4. In project planning Mt. Cenis (France-Italy and Brenner (Innsbruck), Austria and maybe Bolzano/Bozen, Italy  5. Proposed tunnel connecting Spain and Morocco under the Straits of Gibraltar to connect the railway system of North Africa with that of Europe.

The Channel Tunnel (31 miles long) is well known in the US. Less known in the US is the Japanese Seikan tunnel between the main island of Honshu and the north island of Hokkaido. It is longer and deeper than the Channel Tunnel, and passes through far more difficult geology. It runs between Honshu and Hokkaido, cost $7 billion and is 33 miles long.

The US has no railroad tunnels that compare with Europe’s.

In all such cases, the railroads are owned by the public sector and such projects have national and/or European Union support.  While European railroads offer much more frequent passenger train service than is found in the US, they carry a tiny percentage of freight ton-miles and are far less efficient than American freight railroads. Yet with the superiority of American freight railroading, the companies cannot justify or afford the huge investment that would be needed to provide a 21st Century alignment. They need help!

The present US railroad system is the most efficient hauler of overland freight in the world in terms of ton-mile costs. It is also the result of drastic downsizing that followed deregulation. The present system is carrying double or triple the number of ton miles that had been carried on a much larger network prior to deregulation. About one third the track miles are carrying two to three times the traffic. While efficient, this leaves little room for growth. It is also difficult for freight railroads to maintain their track when there is only one track on a given alignment. Trains must be delayed or rerouted over circuitous routes to allow track to be taken out of service for maintenance or replacement. This is not desirable but it is necessary.

One may conclude that the present railroad system consists largely of 19th Century engineering, has greatly reduced track miles and route miles than existed in the 1950’s, yet is carrying twice the traffic. Expanding capacity to be able to handle increased freight traffic as well as increased passenger train traffic appear to be highly desirable national objectives. Excess capacity is desirable to handle an expanding economy as well as peak loads. Private companies cannot invest in excess capacity (unless they have large profit margins, which the railroads do not.) Redundancy is highly desirable to handle dislocations caused by natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or terrorist attacks that have not yet been experienced.

In Germany there are 2 between strategic points so that the military would always have an alternative route in case of invasion. The US railroad system was not designed with such strategic objectives in mind. The mainland US was never threatened, but now this is a distinct possibility. The loss of a key bridge or tunnel here or there could cause great havoc to the US economy, as there are now fewer alternative routes than there were in the 1950’s. Some of the alternatives might be restored or new ones created.

One may conclude that the basic US railroad network is a product of 19th Century engineering with no thought to redundancy that may be needed to cope with natural or terrorist activity or even routine maintenance or reconstruction. It is also circuitous compared to the Interstate Highway System and thereby not as competitive as it might be. This all indicates that it probably is an impediment to economic growth of the US rather than a lubricant for economic growth.

What then should be done?

It is proposed to create a National System of Interstate and Defense Railroads that would be multi-tracked, grade separated and suitable for competitive speeds. This would mean 75 mph for freight trains and 110 or 125 mph for passenger trains. A combination of tax credits and direct grants would be needed since some strategic investments desired for passenger train use might not be needed or wanted by freight railroads. Those improvements would be provided by grants, and such grants would consist of federal and non-federal shares. Multi-track means at least double tracked, and where combined passenger/freight traffic requires, three or even four tracks.

Heavy Haul Routes Needed. This is not to ignore the need for separate heavy haul routes that would be (and are) designed for 25 – 40 mph. It is recognized that such routes being capable of handling 15,000 to 25,000 ton coal or other heavy trains are needed. Energy needed increases with the square of the speed such that it requires four times the energy to move a train at 80 mph as at 40 mph. The railroad companies have been relatively successful in generating internal capital for such investments in heavy haul routes. It is desired to keep such traffic off high speed freight/passenger routes to avoid delays to fast trains. It may be desirable to have separate heavy haul tracks alongside fast freight/passenger tracks where both share the same corridor as exist on portions of the UP and BNSF. For purposes of this paper, it will be assumed that the railroad companies can continue to fund improvements for heavy haul traffic from their own resources. Exceptional needs might be handled on a case by case application for government aid.

A Program to Create a National System of Interstate and Defense RAILROADS.

A number of steps would be needed to approach, identify and quantify needs. This is not something that can be done by a few papers such as this in which small numbers of man hours have been committed. A major research and planning effort will be needed. This might be done under the auspices of the Transportation Research Board with funding from USDOT.

A Proposed Research Program to Develop a National System of Interstate and Defense Railroads.

Identify where rights of way for double or multiple track remain. Determine when and if restoration would be desirable.

Identify abandoned rights of way that exist (more or less intact). Determine which ones could be rebuilt for modern use. Rank them in order of probable need. Establish a list of rights of way to be purchased and preserved for future rail use. This use might be freight railroad, intercity and/or commuter passenger railroad or rail transit in urban-suburban areas. Funding for purchase and preservation of such rights of way should be the first item to be implemented under the proposed program.

Existing rights of way must be preserved especially in urban areas before they are disposed of to developers or other non-rail use. (Underlining added for emphasis.)

Identify where railroads are essential for defense. It is established that railroads are the most efficient way to move an armored division. There are other areas where railroads have been used effectively.

A major shift of freight and passengers from highway to railroad should be an objective to reduce domestic use of petroleum based fuels. No technological development would be needed.
Input from local planning agencies will be desired but oversight by a steering committee appears to be desirable and necessary because many planners have not had academic training or experience in evaluating what railroad rights of way might be used for. They might want a hiking trail on what might be a strategic interstate freight corridor.

A nationwide survey is needed to determine where such by-passes are desired. The survey would include identification of existing abandoned or underused alignments that could be incorporated.
Costs and benefits from such by-passes should be identified and quantified. They could be strategic redundant routes.

Financing of such a National System of Railroads will be a major and continuous undertaking. In the recent past, TRB and USDOT/FHWA have sponsored meetings/seminars/symposia on the subject of innovative financing of transportation projects. There is no need for duplication. Rather, research toward financing the National System of Interstate and Defense Railroads should build upon work already done. This new research effort will be separate from but in parallel with research to define and quantify the proposed system.
Win/Win: A key point to be kept in mind is that financing must be acceptable to all parties to any agreement to improve the national railroad system. With win/win in mind, it is suggested that improvements funded by the public sector be owned by a public entity and leased to the railroads so that the improvements should not be subject real estate taxes.
Some assumptions here may be in order, but they should be confirmed before work begins.
1. Whatever is proposed must be acceptable to the freight railroads that own nearly all the national railroad system. It must be a win/win combination that benefits the owning railroads as well as public sector needs.
2. Tax credits as proposed by the Association of American Railroads may well be a primary source of capital funds from the private sector. It is suggested that a basic percentage be established for all railroad infrastructure, primarily heavy haul routes, and that a somewhat higher percentage be allowed for multi-tracked lines handling passenger trains operated by public entities or on behalf of public entities.
3. For very large projects (which would be common) having very long pay off periods, precedent of the Alameda Corridor might be followed. A public entity would be owner, and would issue long term bonds to fund the project. Using railroad(s) would pay a fee (a toll) per car, per ton, per ton-mile or whatever logically fits the project for the use of it. If such fees would not cover interest and amortization, public financing of the balance might be used, covered by a port authority or whatever the owning agency might be assuming it has cash flow from other sources.
Multi-purpose corridors might be established, especially in urban areas, in which a corridor might include separate freight and passenger railroad tracks along with fiber optic cable, electric power lines, water or other pipe lines, and perhaps truck-only roads. Fees from all users would be applied to bond issues. If forecast revenues were found insufficient, direct grants from relevant public agencies might be sought. The nature of each project would guide choices of funding. It is likely that funding will be project specific, although similar projects might well employ similar funding methods. Innovative, new, financing methods should be an objective of research.

Legislation at the federal and state levels will be needed to implement the proposed National System of Interstate and Defense Railroads. It would be the objective of a final research task to draft such proposed legislation for review by representative staff of relevant legislative bodies.

The above program is ambitious and will require much investment over a period of years. It need not be done all at once. Much of it is already in place and needs only improvement.

Restoration of double track where rights of way exist could be an early development.  Elimination of such bottlenecks would be a natural inclusion in the proposed National System. Identification of defense needs is the subject of still another panel that will be fit into the National System.
Task 0: A preliminary first task will be to estimate the funds and time needed to undertake the research outlined above. A source of such funds must then be identified and found. Some money or services in kind might come from the railroad industry itself, as a key beneficiary and would also give them seats on any steering committee. Much must come from the public sector, most likely USDOT through its FRA, FHWA or other appropriate agency. An independent research organization would manage the effort, and this would logically be the Transportation Research Board which already has much experience in some of the proposed tasks. Tasks would be advertised and awarded to research foundations or consultants in the usual manner. This effort might take up to three years and might cost on the order of $3 to $5 million. Output would be a conceptual engineering type of result defining a National System of Interstate and Defense Railroads and putting tasks in prioritized order for implementation.
A sense of urgency is needed to create a National System that will reduce the nation’s dependence upon imported petroleum for its basic interstate transportation needs. The world’s petroleum supply is being used up at an ever increasing rate, and many of its sources are in insecure areas. President Bush’s state of the union message January 23rd, 2007 included an objective of greatly reducing the US’s consumption of petroleum for surface transportation purposes. The proposed electrified railroad system would contribute to this objective in a big way. Freight railroads are one of the larger users of diesel fuel, much of which must be consumed on main lines which are most conducive to electrification. It has been estimated that railroads consume about six percent of the nation’s consumption of petroleum. Railroads are the only interstate mode that is suitable for electrification using existing technology. We should save petroleum for uses in which there is no readily apparent alternative such as aviation.
If we don’t get started promptly, we will regret it in the not too distant future. The future is approaching rapidly. It is recommended that the research proposed above be authorized and funded at the earliest opportunity. It took fifty years to build the Interstate and Defense Highway System as defined in 1956 legislation and amended from time to time. The railroad system envisaged would take approximately the same length of time.
An improved railroad system will benefit the economy.

The time to begin is now!

Scott R. Spencer, Concept of the proposed National System of Interstate and Defense Railroads.
Pier Clifford, References to base tunnels in Europe.
Larry DeYoung, vice president, Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad, a short line, who reminded me that existing railroads were built with 19th Century engineering.
Thanks to Jack Snyder and my other numerous e-mail friends/correspondents/consultants/academics/researchers, for their suggestions to electrify major routes and numerous other ideas offered by several persons too numerous to cite.
Transportation Research Board, numerous reports on finance and funding.
Special thanks to Jim Wrinn, editor, TRAINS magazine, Kalmbach Publishing Co., Waukesha, WI for use of their four maps in the appendix.
If the United States is to continue its role as the world’s leading economy, it must have a 21st Century System of Interstate and Defense Railroads.

Posted in Railroads, Transportation | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Gail Tverberg: Eight Pieces of Our Oil Price Predicament

Eight Pieces of Our Oil Price Predicament

October 22, 2014, by Gail Tverberg

A person might think that oil prices would be fairly stable. Prices would set themselves at a level that would be high enough for the majority of producers, so that in total producers would provide enough–but not too much–oil for the world economy. The prices would be fairly affordable for consumers. And economies around the world would grow robustly with these oil supplies, plus other energy supplies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way recently. Let me explain at least a few of the issues involved.

1. Oil prices are set by our networked economy.

As I have explained previously, we have a networked economy that is made up of businesses, governments, and consumers. It has grown up over time. It includes such things as laws and our international trade system. It continually re-optimizes itself, given the changing rules that we give it. In some ways, it is similar to the interconnected network that a person can build with a child’s toy.

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Thus, these oil prices are not something that individuals consciously set.

Instead, oil prices reflect a balance between available supply and the amount purchasers can afford to pay, assuming such a balance actually exists. If such a balance doesn’t exist, the lack of such a balance has the possibility of tearing apart the system.

If the compromise oil price is too high for consumers, it will cause the economy to contract, leading to economic recession, because consumers will be forced to cut back on discretionary expenditures in order to afford oil products. This will lead to layoffs in discretionary sectors. See my post Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem.

If the compromise price is too low for producers, a disproportionate share of oil producers will stop producing oil. This decline in production will not happen immediately; instead it will happen over a period of years. Without enough oil, many consumers will not be able to commute to work, businesses won’t be able to transport goods, farmers won’t be able to produce food, and governments won’t be able to repair roads. The danger is that some kind of discontinuity will occur–riots, overthrown governments, or even collapse.

2. We think of inadequate supply being the number one problem with oil, and at times it may be. But at other times inadequate demand (really “inadequate affordability”) may be the number one issue. 

Back in the 2005 to 2008 period, as oil prices were increasing rapidly, supply was the major issue. With higher prices came the possibility of higher supply.

As we are seeing now, low prices can be a problem too. Low prices come from lack of affordability. For example, if many young people are without jobs, we can expect that the number of cars bought by young people and the number of miles driven by young people will be down. If countries are entering into recession, the buying of oil is likely to be down, because fewer goods are being manufactured and fewer services are being rendered.

In many ways, low prices caused by un-affordability are more dangerous than high prices. Low prices can lead to collapses of oil exporters. The Soviet Union was an oil exporter that collapsed when oil prices were down. High prices for oil usually come with economic growth (at least initially). We associate many good things with economic growth–plentiful jobs, rising home prices, and solvent banks.

3. Too much oil in too short a time can be disruptive.

US oil supply (broadly defined, including ethanol, LNG, etc.) increased by 1.2 million barrels per day in 2013, and is forecast by the EIA to increase by close to 1.5 million barrels a day in 2014. If the issue at hand were short supply, this big increase would be welcomed. But worldwide, oil consumption is forecast to increase by only 700,000 barrels per day in 2014, according to the IEA.

Dumping more oil onto the world market than it needs is likely to contribute to falling prices. (It is the excess quantity that leads to lower world oil prices; the drop in price doesn’t say anything at all about the cost of production of oil the additional oil.) There is no sign of a recent US slowdown in production either.  Figure 2 shows a chart of crude oil production from the EIA website.

Figure 2. US weekly crude oil production through October 10, as graphed by the US Energy Information Administration.

4. The balance between supply and demand is being affected by many issues, simultaneously. 

One big issue on the demand (or affordability) side of the balance is the question of whether the growth of the world economy is slowing. Long term, we would expect diminishing returns (and thus higher cost of oil extraction) to push the world economy toward slower economic growth, as it takes more resources to produce a barrel of oil, leaving fewer resources for other purposes. The effect is providing a long-term downward push on the price on demand, and thus on price.

In the short term, though, governments can make oil products more affordable by ramping up debt availability. Conversely, the lack of debt availability can be expected to bring prices down. The big drop in oil prices in 2008 (Figure 3) seems to be at least partly debt-related. See my article, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis. Oil prices were brought back up to a more normal level by ramping up debt–increased governmental debt in the US, increased debt of many kinds in China, and Quantitative Easing, starting for the US in November 2008.

Figure 3. Oil price based on EIA data with oval pointing out the drop in oil prices, with a drop in credit outstanding.

In recent months, oil prices have been falling. This drop in oil prices seems to coincide with a number of cutbacks in debt. The recent drop in oil prices took place after the United States began scaling back its monthly buying of securities under Quantitative Easing. Also, China’s debt level seems to be slowing. Furthermore, the growth in the US budget deficit has also slowed. See my recent post, WSJ Gets it Wrong on “Why Peak Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True”.

Another issue affecting the demand side is changes in taxes and in subsidies. A change toward more taxes such as carbon taxes, or even more taxes in general, such as the Japan’s recent increase in sales tax, tends to reduce demand, and thus give a push toward lower world oil prices. (Of course, in the area with the carbon tax, the oil price with the tax is likely to be higher, but the oil price elsewhere around the world will tend to decrease to compensate.)

Many governments of emerging market countries give subsidies to oil products. As these subsidies are lessened (for example in India and in Brazil) the effect is to raise local prices, thus reducing local oil demand. The effect on world oil prices is to lower them slightly, because of the lower demand from the countries with the reduced subsidies.

The items mentioned above all relate to demand. There are several items that affect the supply side of the balance between supply and demand.

With respect to supply, we think first of the “normal” decline in oil supply that takes place as oil fields become exhausted. New fields can be brought on line, but usually at higher cost (because of diminishing returns). The higher cost of extraction gives a long-term upward push on prices, whether or not customers can afford these prices. This conflict between higher extraction costs and affordability is the fundamental conflict we face.

It is also the reason that a lot of folks are expecting (erroneously, in my view) a long-term rise in oil prices.

Businesses of course see the decline in oil from existing fields, and add new production where they can. Examples include United States shale operations, Canadian oil sands, and Iraq. This new production tends to be expensive production, when all costs are included. For example, Carbon Tracker estimates that most new oil sands projects require a price of $95 barrel to be sanctioned. Iraq needs to build out its infrastructure and secure peace in its country to greatly ramp up production. These indirect costs lead to a high per-barrel cost of oil for Iraq, even if direct costs are not high.

In the supply-demand balance, there is also the issue of oil supply that is temporarily off line, that operators would like to get back on line. Libya is one obvious example. Its production was as much as 1.8 million barrels a day in 2010. Libya is now producing 800,000 barrels a day, but was producing only 215,000 barrels a day in April. The rapid addition of Libya’s oil to the market adds to pricing disruption. Iran is another country with production it would like to get back on line.

5. Even what seems like low oil prices today (say, $85 for Brent, $80 for WTI) may not be enough to fix the world’s economic growth problems.

High oil prices are terrible for economies of oil importing countries. How much lower do they really need to be to fix the problem? Past history suggests that prices may need to be below the $40 to $50 barrel range for a reasonable level of job growth to again occur in countries that use a lot of oil in their energy mix, such as the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Figure 4. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.

Thus, it appears that we can have oil prices that do a lot of damage to oil producers (say $80 to $85 per barrel), without really fixing the world’s low wage and low economic growth problem. This does not bode well for fixing our problem with prices that are too low for oil producers, but still too high for customers.

6. Saudi Arabia, and in fact nearly all oil exporters, need today’s level of exports plus high prices, to maintain their economies.

We tend to think of oil price problems from the point of view of importers of oil. In fact, oil exporters tend to be even more affected by changes in oil markets, because their economies are so oil-centered. Oil exporters need both an adequate quantity of oil exports and adequate prices for their exports. The reason adequate prices are needed is because most of the sales price of oil that is not required for investment in oil production is taken by the government as taxes. These taxes are used for a variety of purposes, including food subsidies and new desalination plants.

A couple of recent examples of countries with collapsing oil exports are Egypt and Syria. (In Figures 5 and 6, exports are the difference between production and consumption.)

Figure 5. Egypt's oil production and consumption, based on BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 6. Syria's oil production and consumption, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

Saudi Arabia has had flat exports in recent years (green line in Figure 7). Saudi Arabia’s situation is better than, say, Egypt’s situation (Figure 5), but its consumption continues to rise. It needs to keep adding production of natural gas liquids, just to stay even.

Figure 7. Saudi oil production, consumption and exports based on EIA data.

As indicated previously, Saudi Arabia and other exporting countries depend on tax revenues to balance their budgets. Figure 8 shows one estimate of required oil prices for OPEC countries to balance their budgets in 2104, assuming that the quantity of exported oil is pretty much unchanged from 2013.

Figure 8. Estimate of OPEC break-even oil prices, including tax requirements by parent countries, from APICORP.

Based on Figure 8, Qatar and Kuwait are the only OPEC countries that would find $80 or $85 barrel oil acceptable, assuming the quantity of exports remains unchanged. If the quantity of exports drops, prices would need to be even higher.

Saudi Arabia has set aside funds that it can tap temporarily, so that it can withstand a lower oil price. Thus, it has the ability to withstand low prices for a year or two, if need be. Its recent price-cutting may be an attempt to “shake out” producers who have less-deep pockets when it comes to weathering low prices for a time. Almost any oil producer elsewhere in the world might be in that category.

7. The world really needs all existing oil production, plus more, if the world economy is to grow.

It takes oil to transport goods, and it takes oil to operate agricultural and construction equipment. Admittedly, we can cut back world production oil production with lower price, but this gets us into “a heap of trouble”. We will suddenly find ourselves less able to do the things that make the economy function. Governments will stop fixing roads. Services we take for granted, like long distance flights, will disappear.

A lot of people have a fantasy view of a world economy operating on a much smaller quantity of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, there is no way we can get there by way of a rapid drop in oil prices. In order for such a change to take place, we would have to actually figure out some kind of transition by which we could operate the world economy on a lot less fossil fuel. Meeting this goal is still a very long ways away. Many people have convinced themselves that high oil prices will help make this transition possible, but I don’t see this as happening. High prices for any kind of fuel can be expected to lead to economic contraction. If transition costs are high as well, this will make the situation worse.

The easiest way to reduce consumption of oil is by laying off workers, because making and transporting goods requires oil, and because commuting usually requires oil. As a result, the biggest effect of a cutback on oil production is likely to be huge job layoffs, far worse than in the Great Recession.

8. The cutback in oil supply due to low prices is likely to occur in unexpected ways.

When oil prices drop, most production will continue as usual for a time because wells that have already been put in place tend to produce oil for a time, with little added investment.

When oil production does stop, it won’t necessarily be from high-cost production, because relative to current market prices, a very large share of production is high-cost. What will tend to happen is that production that has already been “started” will continue, but production that is still “in the pipeline” will wither away. This means that the drop in production may be delayed for as much as a year or even two. When it does happen, it may be severe.

It is not clear exactly how oil from shale formations will fare. Producers have leased quite a bit of land, and in some cases have done imaging studies on the land. Thus, these producers have quite a bit of land available on which a share of the costs has been prepaid. Because of this prepaid nature of costs, some shale production may be able to continue, even if prices are too low to justify new investments in shale development. The question then will be whether on a going-forward basis, the operations are profitable enough to continue.

Prices for new oil development have been too low for many oil producers for many months. The cutback in investment for new production has already started taking place, as described in my post, Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. It is quite possible that we are now reaching “peak oil,” but from a different direction than most had expected–from a situation where oil prices are too low for producers, rather than being (vastly) too high for consumers.

The lack of investment that is already occurring is buried deeply within the financial statements of individual companies, so most people are not aware of it. Dividends remain high to confuse the situation. By the time oil supply starts dropping, the situation may be badly out of hand and largely unfixable because of damage to the economy.

One big problem is that our networked economy (Figure 1) is quite inflexible. It doesn’t shrink well. Even a small amount of shrinkage looks like a major recession. If there is significant shrinkage, there is danger of collapse. We haven’t set up a new type of economy that uses less oil. We also don’t have an easy way of going backward to a prior economy, such as one that uses horses for transport. It looks like we are headed for “interesting times”.


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