Saturday, October 1, 2011

Green Gets In Your Eyes: Applied Ethanolomics and Passenger Rail


As Yogi Berra might have said, “the future of passenger rail ain’t what it use to be.”

Remember the old ballad “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” by Clyde McPhatter and the Platters?  If you do, and you danced teenage foxtrots to it like I did, you pretty much just gave up your age.  I remember it well; the tune for sure, and most of the words, actually.  I guess those first ‘coming of age’ close dances left quite am impression on me.

I’m thinking about writing a modern day version called “Green Gets In Your Eyes,”  It’ll wax melodic about having your heart swept away by dreamy environmental nirvana, and how it clouds your ability to see the reality right in front of you.  It probably won’t be too ‘danceable,’ as they used to say on American Bandstand, but I hope to give it a certain je ne sais quoi just the same.

By now you should be wondering what the hell I’m talking about, and why I don’t just get right to it.  I could, but that wouldn’t be as much fun as amusing myself with scatter-brained analogies and other flights of fancy narrative.

Alright, then, since you insist, let’s get on with it.  In my long and undistinguished career in the defense industry. I often heard it said that

“the Government wants to save money, and they’ll spend whatever it takes to do it.”

And it was quite often proven true, discouraging as that could be.  I also had at least one major situation where we proposed a major system evolution that would have saved millions and millions, with almost no risk and no front-end investment, but the government was so distrustful of such proposals by industry that they wouldn’t let it get to first base.

A more contemporary version of the ‘save money’ quote above might go something like this:

“The government wants to go green and stop global climate change, and they don’t care how much environmental and economic damage it takes to make it happen.”

While there are doubtless hundreds of cases to prove the point, two immediately come to mind.  The first is the Solyndra debacle, which has been all over the news recently, and is leading to discovery of many more examples of government ‘good intentions,’ or far worse, providing cover for bumbling, stumbling, and crony capitalism.  Who knows; it might even lead to a bit more scrubbing of the fact sheets on the budding windmill business here in Maine.  We just need to find our very own Don Quixote and his loyal squire, Sancho Panza.

The second is the whole ethanol goat-rope, or if you prefer, fiasco.  What a brilliant example of the worst government is capable of when it decides to substitute its own perverted motivations and misguided logic for the self-regulation of free market forces.  Made possible, of course, by unlimited access to opium (OPM-other people’s money), and when that runs out, printing and borrowing even more.

Let’s review some of the highlights of the great ethanol experiment, which at this point, is probably irreversible:

  • It reduces vehicle mileage typically by 10% or more; gee, thanks for the help, Senator Foghorn.
  • It props up farmers who couldn’t make it on their own.  Just like all the other farm subsidies.
  • It diverts land away from other desirable crops and uses to grow corn.
  • It drives up the cost of a huge array of food products, including meats.
  • It causes mechanical problems in marine engines and small engines, like mowers, generators, etc.  I’ve had these problems myself; nothing like having your generator quit an hour after the power goes out.
  • It costs more in fossil fuel based carbon footprint to manufacture and distribute than it saves by adding to gasoline.  In other words, it increases greenhouse gases, rather than decreasing them.
  • It perpetuates destructive ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ based politics.
  • It brings more big money distortion to our political system.
  • And these are just the obvious ‘benefits.’

Which reminds me of the old line about “Bob can seem a little off-putting when you first meet him, but once you get to know him, you’ll really dislike him.”

It’s like the geniuses who think buying an all electric car will completely eliminate their carbon footprint, and certify them for local hero status.  You know, that gives me an idea.  Given all the homes heated with fuel oil around here, there should be a fortune to be made selling fully-electric replacements for oil fired boilers.  Just think of all the personal CO2 pollution that would eliminate!  (Hey Stella!  See if you can get in touch with Angus King, and tell him I’ve got an idea that should ‘blow’ him away.)

Which, in a very roundabout way, brings us to the punch line about government investment to bring back passenger rail as a means to reduce the carbon footprint of vehicular traffic on our highways and byways.  We talked briefly yesterday about the relative carbon profiles of trains and buses here.

Side submits that the rationale that drives the near-religious fervor for passenger rail is a direct spin-off of the collective brilliance and wisdom reflected in the ethanol mandates and the absurd consequences they spawn.  Politically, economically, and environmentally.

On second thought, maybe I should stop complaining, and head down to the local Kool-Aid emporium for a pint or two.  Because the good news is that if the train doesn’t work out financially, the usual suspects will claim it’s because it was under-funded and the public wasn’t sufficiently educated.

Hence, it can all be fixed by spending even more; so new truckloads (or trainloads!) of free money should be coming our way.  Opportunities for revered consultants should abound! 

Matter of fact, if you’re a devotee of modern government economic planning theory, you should be hoping and praying it does fail, so we can get those borrowed dollars up here as fast as possible.  Then things can really takeoff on the right side of the tracks.  (You don’t know how hard it was for me not to type ‘left side of the tracks.’)

One more curiosity for you to ponder.  In the current fiscal year, Brunswick will spend about $600,000 resurfacing roughly 3 miles of roadway.  Without counting, let’s assume the Portland to Brunswick Amtrak extension passes through 7 towns.  The track upgrade investment for the service is $35 million.

How much good could that money have done for the affected towns?  Well, divided evenly that would equate to Brunswick spending $5 million on road resurfacing, or enough for 24 miles at the current rate, or the equivalent of 8 years worth at the ‘normal’ pace.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which use of the money would make a greater and more widely used improvement in our transportation infrastructure, remembering that we already have established bus service running between here and Portland.

As for us, it should be pretty clear that we’re on the Other Side of the prevailing local wisdom and socio-political consensus.

But hey, somebody’s gotta live on the wrong side of the right of way, figuratively speaking.  And after all these years, we’ve come to appreciate the solitude, even if all the partying takes place on the other side.

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