Column: Reflections on revolutionary infrastructure, dead railways, and a desperate need for a better plan
February 19, 20205:25 AM
As we are now firmly underway in a new year, the welcoming ascension of the sun above the horizon provides a much-needed jolt of spring hope. On the other hand though, all that sunshine also provides a better view of the train wreck that is our nation’s economy/industrial future. More daylight brings into full view the whole mess grinding to a halt, felled by a few random objects on a few railway tracks, or a handful of not-imperilled protesters. While Ottawa devotes itself to finding a way to satisfy every single one of them, which will take a while because, well, they will multiply like rabbits (I might throw up a blockade too…in support of, hmm, let’s say… Saudi women’s rights. Am I wrong? Where’s the rule book?), this is a good time to reflect on where we’re at, from a higher level. Someone should.The railway shutdowns are a poignant reminder of several major building blocks that made North America such an economic powerhouse for more than a century. Railroads are now a background abstraction for most, but seeing them disabled causes one to reflect on the nature of sweeping industrial change (if one’s mind is prone to reflecting on industrial change – an admittedly acquired taste).A North American analysis is enough to capture the essence of the economic dynamism of the twentieth century; Europe did develop coincidentally (in the industrial sense), sort of, but while North America was undergoing full-throttle development, Europe was still culturally immersed in that centuries-old habit of periodic wars. Japan would eventually roar to life, but as they also had to spend a decade or two waiting for their ears to quit ringing, we’ll focus on the relative peace of NA, which exploded into the world’s economic engine.Two huge infrastructure projects were key to NA’s development. In Canada, the cross-country railway was completed in the late 1800s (a condition of BC’s joining confederation), which drove a settlement and development boom that lasted for many decades. In the US, the Interstate highway system was constructed, facilitating a revolution in the transport of goods and services that shaped the US to this day (it wasn’t designated the “Interstate” until 1956; the actual national road grid in 1921 (of course there were many other developments and railroads, but these two were amplified by demographic trends – in Canada, the settling of the west, and in the US, the rise of the automobile)).These two systems epitomize the revolutions that can occur with major development plans that are well-crafted by competent governments. Or, if not purely by governments, with the very strong help of governments. Multi-decade plans that will shape the future of large parts of the country should not be the playground of single corporations. Not even Amazon.Both the Canadian railway and the US Interstate system were revolutionary. They allowed the settlement of frontier areas and enabled mass transit of public goods, which dramatically lowered costs and raised availability. The concurrent rise of the automobile – based on readily available petroleum – was the rocket fuel that propelled a new and incredibly high standard of living that was within reach of tens of millions. Those millions could transform their lives, going from no-electricity wood-fired horse-drawn refrigerator-less existence-eking discomfort to the exact opposite in a generation (including many surviving Europeans that said to heck with this perpetual European real-life Risk game, and packed their bags and headed for the New World).Those are examples of nation-building infrastructure projects, with a staggering payoff – the US and Canada became financial powerhouses. The cost was staggering as well; even the final big push to create the Interstate network in the 1950s was a proposed 10-year, $100 billion plan. That would be, in today’s dollars, I have no idea but can safely say it would be a sh*tload of money.What does that have to do with today? Everything.Today, there is an insistence that another revolution is either underway or will soon be, a complete overhaul of our energy and transportation infrastructures in a bid to move to a carbon-neutral (or beyond) world. Proponents have even swiped the New Deal tag, and call the latest grand plan the Green New Deal.So what’s the problem with a Green New Deal, if the first go-round worked so fabulously? Well, on the road to IPCC mandated salvation are two massive ogres blocking the way, so to speak (was back in the Harry Potter…).The first ogre poses the question: How much is all this stuff going to cost? And the answer is: no one knows. But the total would be pretty much incomprehensible. Even Green New Deal advocates, fully confident in their plan, put forth estimates that are stupefying. One GND puts the figure at $73 trillion globally, a not insignificant number, and even that one is loaded with overly simplistic (“Another uncertainty arises from our assumption of a perfectly interconnected transmission system”, a statement that is profoundly ridiculous because grid experts can’t even begin to put a price on “perfect interconnectedness”, or a claim that “most flights under 1,500 km will be by battery-electric plane” within 30 years, another absurdity considering how long it takes to certify a plane with proven technology and not non-existent technology (please don’t point to a 4 passenger puddle jumper, flitting around Vancouver, that can make 20-minute barely-laden flights, as being remotely similar to a mythical yet-to-be-born beast that will take care of “most 1,500 km flights”)).Combining such GND theories with even the IPCC’s literature makes for Monty Python-esque reading. The IPCC that to meet its climate targets, “pathways would require…rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems [that] are unprecedented in terms of scale…”. Here’s what California’s uber-green governor when informed that a single high-speed rail line between LA and San Francisco would cost $77 billion: “Let’s be real. The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long.” A GND would entail hundreds of such projects, and one quickly realizes that the whole scheme is the equivalent of a Grade 10 boy’s napkin sketch plan to find gainful employment on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit set. Which brings us in a roundabout way to the second ogre.He/she poses the next question: what is the carrot? What is the incentive that would drive such a mind-bogglingly large transition? Proponents say it is a requirement to prevent the world from heating in 30+ years. But a theoretical fear of what might happen is not an effective incentive for a global population to voluntarily take an even harder route than necessary to achieve a lifestyle like the west takes for granted. It just isn’t.And there is no other carrot. In fact, there are a lot of negative carrots. Er, you know what I mean. How about roadblocks. First among the roadblocks is the resistance to building anything these days. It’s not just pipelines that meet resistance; so do wind farms, solar farms and electrical transmission lines. Any new infrastructure pisses someone off, and the more tolerant we become of every grievance (save those from hydrocarbon workers), the more power those grievances have to halt anything.And that brings us in a roundabout way to Canada’s current self-inflicted gunshot wound. Billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure can be blockaded by a handful of people because they “don’t like it”. Protesters now ignore court injunctions, or gleefully set them on fire, while the police and boneless politicians hop frantically from foot to foot in a rising state of panic, incanting whatdowedonow-whatdowedonow-whatdowedo…and other protesters see that they can do whatever they want, just like Extinction Rebellion did last fall. There is no downside to hitting the streets and laying down in an intersection. Even if someone were to somehow get GND type legislation passed, against all odds, the protest industry would shut down three-quarters of any initiative as soon as it got off the drawing board. No matter what you build, no matter where, someone will want it stopped. In days gone by, laws governed the process of what could proceed and what could not. Now that role has been handed to…well, pretty much anyone that has the wherewithal to attach scribbled cardboard to a stick and grab hold of the right end.Ironically, it is at this very time that we most desperately need a national energy plan that is wise, forward-looking, realistic, and plays to Canada’s strengths. Haters will leap up in joy and say haha, you cried about the National Energy Program, now you want another one. Such a view, which I’ve heard, is painfully stupid; not all plans are the same. And at the same time, “Carbon neutral by 2050” is not a plan. It is a slogan. It is vacuous in the context of a global wish to keep CO2 levels at a certain amount. It is of no help whatsoever when the whole world can see where the biggest issues are. It is divisive and will tear our country apart because it has no proper context, or a bad one, because it is an open ended option for the politically motivated to use the environment as their tool. By all means, let’s focus on the environment, reducing our footprint, and doing things better. But we’re not Germany, or Japan, or the Netherlands. We are huge, cold, unpopulated, and mostly wild. We need to start with a plan that knows what we are. We can do much better; we have to.A plan could be a very green plan that exceeds “carbon neutral by 2050” if we choose the yardstick of our making. For example, , , , and more are all vigorously pursuing hydrogen-based economies, as they see the shortcomings of wind/solar. Canada is positioned spectacularly to be at the heart of a hydrogen economy, particularly if new works to recover hydrogen from existing (or spent) oil fields as it appears to be doing. Think of the potential for the country if we were the epicentre of hydrogen development and production, in a way that utilizes much of the hundreds of billions in infrastructure we’ve already put to work. Such a development could have two massive benefits – helping mightily with the issue of what to do with abandoned wells/well sites, and it would be pursued enthusiastically by private enterprise, because it has at its core a carrot and not a stick. Had we put the same effort into that initiative as we’ve put into pipeline wars over the past decade, it would be up and running by now and we’d be a world leader.Or maybe there’s a way to use our massive existing petroleum infrastructure as a geothermal power-generation mechanism. Maybe some existing wells could be used, maybe not, but many of the lease sites could, and so could some of the above ground infrastructure. Again, is pushing these ideas forward; why not bring these ideas together and go from cowering about our environmental performance to utilizing/maximizing what we have, which is a lot?Canada is the world’s natural resource pantry. We are blessed with an abundance of pretty much everything, natural materials and agricultural products that many nations lack and desperately need. That doesn’t mean we are non-tech, or non-anything. It simply is our strength. Like the very first divisions of labour, where the person who made the best boots became the village’s bootmaker, we need to play to our strengths and leave other nations play to theirs. We need to have our own scorecard for our staggeringly huge and beautiful environment; we don’t have a billion people nor do we have a high population density. We are who we are; we need to own it and build on our competitive advantage. We are blessed beyond belief with the materials that modern life requires. In wise hands, Canada’s advantage could be and should be the key to pre-eminent statehood. In the wrong hands, well, look out the freaking window…Times they are a-changin’. The future is murky, but in the absence of any national-level guiding wisdom, one thing is certain: existing infrastructure is about to become a prized commodity, because no one is going to be building much of anything for a very long time.Time to stop disinformation in its tracks. Say no to the politicization of critical environmental issues, and yes to balanced discussions. Pick up a copy of “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at , , or . These may be the wisest material you’ll find on the internet (except that one loser).Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam or email Terry .