Tuesday, August 01, 2006

For Want of a Nail

One of my persistent themes here has been the critical importance of infrastructure in enabling us to follow through on the energy choices we make. Pipelines, storage tanks, marine terminals and high-tension lines aren't very romantic, but they make the more glamorous and desirable parts of the system possible. I've commented specifically on the strain imposed on our rail network by our growing consumption of coal, and by our increasing appetite for ethanol, which can't be shipped in petroleum products pipelines. So I wasn't terribly surprised to read in Sunday's Washington Post that someone wants to build a new railroad in the Midwest to alleviate that congestion--and compete away some of the high freight rates that incumbent railroads have been able to charge. This project is a consequence--intended or not--of many of our other decisions, including those limiting the development of natural gas resources and infrastructure, and establishing preferences for grain-based fuels.

While railroads are generally considered more romantic than pipelines, our mental images of sleek Super Chiefs or modern TGVs collide with the reality of hundred-car coal trains and long lines of ethanol tank cars. I like trains, but I have some distinctly un-fond memories of lying awake on business trips and vacations, with hourly freights blowing their horns at every grade crossing for miles. However, if we're going to rely on our vast coal reserves and agricultural output to wean ourselves from imported energy, then we must reconcile ourselves to more railroads of this type in our future.

The Post article describes the opposition that this project is encountering from a variety of interests. In our country of 300 million empowered individuals, it's impossible to build almost any project without disturbing someone. I don't doubt that the Mayo Clinic and the farmers who stand to be displaced have legitimate concerns. What I wonder about, though, is the mechanism by which we would assess whether this railroad encroaches on more "back yards" than would the offshore natural gas platforms and pipelines, the avoidance of which made something like the proposed DM&E line virtually inevitable.

Nor am I exactly thrilled at the idea that, if this project moves ahead, it will likely receive multi-billion-dollar government loans or loan guarantees. In for a penny, in for a pound, though. If we're going to allocate billions in incentives for ethanol production, can we really stint on making sure the resulting ethanol plants can get their required inputs and deliver their product to market? These decisions are all inter-connected.

I can't predict whether Mr. Schieffer will get his new rail line approved. But I can safely predict that, until we begin to address our energy supply and demand policies in a more systematic and comprehensive way, we will continue to face awkward choices like this one, with little basis on which to trade off eminent domain and the common good against our natural NIMBY inclinations.

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