Category Archives: Transportation

Could the end of fossil fuels bring back wilderness?

At the beginning of the superb BBC television series Planet Earth, the narrator explains that the show is dedicated to showing people “the last wildernesses”. In a sense, this is too generous. There is no truly wild land left in the world. At the very least, every square metre of the planet’s surface has been affected by the global changes humanity has induced. These include the introduction of invasive species, depletion of stratospheric ozone, the alteration of the nitrogen cycle through chemical fertilizers, and – of course – climate change.

Beyond those global changes, most of what was once wilderness has been altered by more specific human impacts. Dams have been built and rivers redirected. The world’s great forests have almost all been cut down, with both direct and indirect effects. All through the countryside now there are engineering schemes, mines, transmission lines, and vacation houses.

It is very hard to know what the long-term decline of oil as a transportation fuel will mean for humanity. It is likely that as oil reserves are exhausted the price will rise. That trend may be accompanied by the development of more efficient vehicles, electric vehicles, and other ways to travel as much or more with less oil. Alternatively, Jeff Rubin could be right and growing fossil fuel scarcity could be accompanied by a permanent decrease in human mobility.

If so, one upshot could be the return of wilderness of a kind. If it wasn’t so cheap to trek out beyond the normal bounds of human civilization in four-wheel-drive vehicles and helicopters, those places might feel less of an impact from human activity. At the same time, people could find themselves more densely packed into areas with comparatively affordable public transit systems.

All this is speculation, of course. Understanding how climate change and fossil fuel depletion will interact with other known and unanticipated global trends is impossible to do in advance. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens.

Tankers for fossil fuel transport

Along with pipelines and rail, tankers seem like one of the important choke-points in the world’s fossil fuel system. If our objective is to keep oil, coal, and gas underground regardless of the desires of the people who legally own those resources, we are going to have to squeeze the links between suppliers and customers, especially unscrupulous customers like China who will buy oil from anywhere (even countries subject to trade sanctions).

In that spirit, it seems sensible to have a thread to post updates about tankers in. For instance: Western premiers urge PM to kill tanker bill.

The military and coal-to-liquids

You can make liquid fuels like gasoline, kerosene, and diesel out of all sorts of things by using the Fisher-Tropsh process. This is what Germany and Japan did during the second world war, when they had their access to imported oil curtailed.

Potentially, this could be good news for the climate. If we harvest biomass in a low-carbon way, then turn it into fuel in a low-carbon way, we could make biofuels suitable for use in aircraft and other vehicles in a way that is low- or even zero-carbon overall.

Unfortunately, a more likely application of the technology is coal-to-liquids (CTL). We might use the Fisher-Tropsch process to turn the world’s dirtiest and most dangerous fuel into forms that are valuable, convenient, and perfect for warming the planet.

In his latest column, Robert Rapier describes the risk that the armed forces of the United States Navy will turn to CTL in a major way, as oil becomes increasingly costly and expensive to acquire. The U.S. Air Force is also considering the technology.

The last thing the world needs is the ability to turn coal into more convenient types of fuel. That would lead to the burning of even more fossil fuels, which would in turn cause even more warming. And we are already committing ourselves to a dangerously large amount.

Travel and emissions in Canada

With the holidays coming up, it may be time to resurrect the eternal (usually unpleasant) debate about climate change, ethics, and travel options.

This data is from Canada’s latest submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC):

There are a few interesting things in there, but the most interesting to me are the figures on greenhouse gas emissions per passenger-kilometre, for different transportation options.

According to this chart, going 1km by car produces an average of 0.14 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent. Taking the train is just as bad. Flying is about 18% worse per kilometre (though flying certainly encourages people to travel farther, since it is so fast). The bus is the clear winner, in this analysis, producing 0.05 kg per passenger kilometre.

It seems to me that bus travel has two significant things going for it:

  1. It seems to emit the least greenhouse gas per distance traveled
  2. Because it is slow and unpleasant, people choose to travel less by bus

That said, a case can be made for rail as well. While it may be no better than driving right now, increased use might eventually drive the development of an electrical rail network, powered using zero-carbon forms of energy like nuclear fission and renewables.

Another interesting aspect of the table is the figures on passenger activity. Between 1990 and 2008, the number of passenger kilometres traveled by light truck (pickups, SUVs, etc) went up 179%. Aviation went up 77%. Both of those are above the overall average increase of 56%.

Ultimately, all sectors of our economy will need to become carbon-neutral. Inter-city transportation may be one of the most challenging areas in which to achieve that.

Denmark’s expensive energy

Jeff Rubin has an interesting piece on the Globe and Mail website about Denmark’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy prices. Famously, Denmark gets about 20% of its electricity from wind power. Less famously, the remainder comes from coal. Rubin explains that: “coal’s share of power generation in Denmark’s power grid is basically the same as it is in China”.

Why, then, have Denmark’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions actually fallen during the last two decades, while those in North America have risen by about 30%?

The answer lies not with the source of power, but with the price of power. At 30 cents per kilowatt hour, electricity costs anywhere from three to five times what the average North American would pay. And, not surprisingly, Danish households consume a fraction of the power that we do.

Certainly, conservation is an important part of dealing with climate change, and price signals are one way to encourage it. Danish cars are also heavily taxed: an extra 100 to 180% of the sticker price, depending on horsepower.

In addition to the high price of power, I suspect that at least some of Denmark’s success in reducing GHG emissions is the result of exporting pollution-intensive industries to places with less regulation. Almost certainly, Denmark imports at least some emissions intensive products, like Chinese steel. In the long run, preventing domestic production from being displaced by imports from countries with few climate regulations is an important part of effective climate change policy-making. One key instrument for achieving that could be carbon tariffs. That said, China is actually doing more than most people think when it comes to fighting climate change.

Coal-blocked roads in China

Illegally mined coal is being blamed for a massive traffic jam in China. The jam has already lasted for 11 days, and is expected to last for two more weeks:

For years, small illegal coal mines in the province of Shanxi provided Beijing and its surroundings with a good deal of coal but so many of the mines would collapse or explode, and so many miners would die, (over 1,600 nationwide last year according to official figures) that the local authorities have closed most of them down.

That’s all very well, but China being China, the province of Inner Mongolia, to the North of Shanxi, has taken up the slack. And an awful lot of the trucks currently snarled on the G110 expressway to Beijing are carrying coal mined illegally in Inner Mongolia.

They are taking the G110, drivers explained to the daily Beijing News, because there are no coal checkpoints on that highway, so they don’t have to bribe any inspectors to turn a blind eye to their illegal loads.

The situation demonstrates the intersection between a number of relevant phenomena: infrastructure (including transport and energy), governance (including the enforcement of law and regulations), and the influence of the state.

Apparently, the usual cost to ship a 30 ton truck of coal from Inner Mongolia to Beijing is $1,765.

Pipelines – the weak point of Oil Sands Expansion

In order for the Albertan Oil Sands to fulfill a plan to expand to five times their current size, increased capacity for exporting Tar Sands oil must be secured. The primary way export capacity is to be increased is through the construction of pipelines. Pipelines, however, are (comparatively) easy to stop through community mobilizations because they harm communities immediately through leaks and produce few jobs, in addition to their role in the overall climate crisis.

The most important pipeline for Tar Sands expansion and its role in the perpetuation of an oil based economy is the Trailbreaker. This pipeline, which is actually a project to convert sections of existing pipeline and build additional pumping stations to allow for transportation of the oil sands product, will run from Alberta to Chicago, back into Canada through the Great Lakes region, over the island of Montreal, and finally down into Maine terminating at the port of Portland. From Portland, Maine, the product will be loaded onto ships bound for the Gulf of Mexico, specifically the coast of Texas. The reason for this is to exploit the excess capacity of refineries built near US offshore oil in the Gulf of Mexico – capacity which is no longer in use due to decreased production from rigs in the Gulf.

The Trailbreaker project is currently shelved, however, due to the world economic downturn and difficulties with the construction of a pumping station in Dunham, Quebec. In 2009, Dunham elected a mayor who ran on a campaign opposing the pipeline. It is surprisingly easy for communities to band together and oppose the construction of oil pipelines – all pipelines leak (the question is when and how often), and when they leak they cause local environmental catastrophes. Unlike home grown opposition to windfarms, this is a NIMBY-ism which conforms with the interests of the species. Folks from Vancouver might remember the 2007 spill in Burnaby, B.C. – that was from a pipeline shipping 350 barrels per day. Burnaby, B.C. is therefore a good region in which to mobilize support against the proposed Northern Gateway Expansion which would increase that flow to 700,000 barrels per day.

Coal as Metaphor: Expanding our understanding of “non-renewable”

There’s a reason this site is called “burycoal” (and it has nothing to do with how silly the word “bury” looks written down) – it’s easy to grasp that if climate has to do with the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, digging up all the carbon which the earth has buried over billions of years into solid black stuff might not be the best recipe for human survival. It’s immediately comprehensible that while burning down a tree while another is growing does not add to the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere, digging a tree’s worth of coal out from underground and burning it does – or rather, perhaps we could say that the coal carbon-neutrality cycle is as long as the coal’s “renewable” cycle, which is qualitatively longer than that of trees.

However, there are limits to this over-simplifying way of thinking. For one, when you burn a tree you don’t just give off pure carbon dioxide but also soot, “black carbon” – and this has its own set of effects on climate. So your wood stove is not neutral (and you should replace it with an EPA certified unit, which are designed for cleaner combustion). For another, humans engage in all sorts of practices which turn chemicals into other chemicals, and this poorly thought out alchemy (with respect to the ecosystem at least) is a major contributor to global warming even if the processes are run using carbon-neutral energy.

The production of animal food products for human consumption, for instance, according to a UN Food and Agriculture report, contributes “37 percent of all human-induced methane.” Methane is a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as CO2, but it is actually a mistake to simply equivocate it, 1 unit of methane to 23 units of CO2. It is also qualitatively different in that this major contributor of it is not a source of energy. We need energy to produce it, but its production itself, abstracted from the energy inputs, is a major source of methane. Animals are effectively global warming machines – they ingest carbon based food, and they output a global warming agent far more potent than went in. They re-assemble what was already in the climate (i.e. from whence their food? Out of the air!) into something which has a very different effect on the climate (23 times worse!).

In fact, according to the FAO report,

“the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.”

More than transport. Think about this for a minute – all those trains, ships, trucks, automobiles, all that coal fired electricity running city trolleys and subways, all those airliners too.

Now, I’m not saying that shutting down meat production will be easy. But it seems naive to think that it would be more difficult (technically, politically) to shut down all meat production than to switch to carbon neutral transportation solutions. Now, of course I’m not making a exclusionary disjunctive claim here – we obviously need to do both. Heck, even Glenn Beck agrees with me on this one.

The point I want to make here, however, is not that you should go vegan (although I think everyone should seriously limit their meat intake – not one less meat meal per week, more like reduce meat meals per week to one, and reduce your consumption of dairy while you do more research and learn what you’re actually involving yourself in when you consume these things – ignorance is not a serious excuse). Rather, taking the environment seriously with respect to global warming means treating our ability to release greenhouse gases as a non-renewable resource. Think of it as a finite garbage dump, and when it overflows, we go Venus (this is a misleading analogy, since actual landfill space is not a world historical environmental problem). The production of animals is, in this frame, the same as coal – because it involves the consumption of a non-renewable resource. That non-renewable resource is not a “thing”, but rather the sensitivity of the climate, up to the point where we catastrophically steal from future generations.

So, the sense in which I want to say “coal” can be a metaphor for understanding our climate predicament is that there is a finite amount which we can modify and still sustain flourishing life. This modification can come from digging up the black stuff, or it can come from re-assembling the stuff the air into stuff that acts differently in the air – and this is what we do when we raise livestock. The non-renewability of a resource is not only in the fact it can not continue to be extracted, but also in the fact it can not continue to be emitted. The connection of these two thoughts is necessary to think rationally about the way in which humans interact and shift their eco-situation.

Coal and Railroading in North America since 1960

The dieselization of North American railroading was nearing completion by 1960. The previously dominant steam engines had been removed largely not due to concern over the cost of fuel, but rather maintenance and crew costs. Steam engines were very expensive to maintain – they spent almost twice as much time in a shop than they spent pulling trains. They were also expensive to crew – for instance, a freight train pulled by two steam engines requires two complete 3 or 4 man crews, whereas a freight train pulled by a dozen diesels can be run by two men. Also, whereas a diesel can be started almost like an automobile and be ready to run in minutes, a steam engine takes hours to heat the fire and build up enough steam to move a train.

Because the move to diesel power was not motivated primarily by energy costs, the changing price gap between oil and coal did not result in railways switching back and forth between coal powered steam and oil powered diesel. If a firm had wanted to put steamers back in service, this would have been possible only through not only restoration of the locomotives, but also reconstruction of the watering infrastructure, and hiring, training and paying the large number of people required to crew the engines.

When extreme price disparity between oil and coal arose during the late 70’s oil crisis, it motivated American Coal Enterprises (ACE) to design a “modern” steam engine (which I’ve written about before on my blog). To show they were serious about coal as a still current railroading fuel, Ross Rowland (their head) acquired the use of a steam locomotive and ran it in freight service pulling coal trains – and demonstrated that even using 1950’s technology the fuel costs were lower using coal. As for crew costs, the ACE 3000 was modern – computer controlled etc, needing no more crew than a diesel. The problem of water was solved with a steam condensing system, which meant new water was required only every 1000 miles. It was also designed to require far less maintenance than steam engines of old. However, there were no orders, and the engine was never built. I think this is significant – why would no firms want to be isolated from the fluctuating price of oil? Are firms simply inherently conservative?

The problem with the conservative thesis is that there are other examples of railroads taking risks on new technologies to exploit cheap fuel – for instance Union Pacific’s GTEL (Gas Turbine Electric) locomotives of the 50’s and 60’s presented a tempting alternative to dieselization.

Unlike diesels, they were powerful (4000-8000hp), and also unlike diesels they ran on very inexpensive “Bunker C” fuel (which is nasty stuff). They were procured to replace the Big Boy steam locomotives, to pull heavy freights over the most challenging sections of UP mainline (romanticized here). There was even coal-powered variant which ran on ground up coal dust – however this proved unreliable as any oversized speck of coal would damage the turbine blades.

I think it is significant that the ACE program was never brought to fruition. Railroad firms are not inherently conservative – this is demonstrated by the GTEL locomotives, and also by CN’s TurboTrain. I think the project never came to pass because railroads in the United States are concerned with appearing modern, and forward-looking. Returning to coal fired steam power might have tainted a railroads image, and would certainly not have been perceived as environmentally friendly. With the development of the computer to the point where it became usable in capitalist products, the 1980s were a period of rapid technological development. For instance, private cars in 1980 were not so different from 1960, and by 1990 bore many of the significant changes that make cars today “modern”, i.e. computer controlled ignition and fuel injection, modern crash testing and air bags, etc. Coal was not the right fit for this forward looking time and – hopefully – it remains the wrong fuel today.

The History of Wood and Coal in Industrial Transport

Prior to the easy availability of coal, rail and ship transport in North America was powered largely by chopped wood. Up until 1870 most railway locomotives in the United States ran on wood. Sternwheelers also ran on wood when and where coal was not (yet) available. Sternwheelers on Kootenay lake for instance, burned wood until the B.C. Southern Railway was extended to Kootenay Landing, connecting the lake with the coalfields of Crowsnest Pass. The 19th century consumption of wood by steamboat was described vividly by Basil Hall in his 1828 “Travels in North America”:

“As the steam-boats on this river [the Mississippi], and indeed all over America, burn nothing but wood, and as their engines are mostly high pressure, the consumption of this bulky description of fuel is so considerable, that they are obliged to call at least twice a day at the wooding stations on the banks of the stream. The Philelphia [a sternwheeler] used about a cord of wood an hour, or 128 cubic feet. A cord consists of a pile eight feet long by four high, and four in thickness, each billet being four feet in length. Sometimes, when we were pushing hard, we burnt 30 cords in a day.” (Vol. 3 page 348)

At this rate of wood consumption, one can imagine that the impact on the forest by even one sternwheeler would be obvious to passengers. John H. White’s book on 19th century American Railroading cites a peak wood consumption by U.S. railroads of 3.6 million cords per year.  Using the average “one cord per acre per year” rule, sustainable production of that amount of fuel would require more than 14 thousand square kilometres of forest. At a time when America had only 30,000 miles of trackage, whereas the current U.S. trackage is over 230,000 miles. Tonnage shipped has likely increased by a much greater ratio than that due to the increases in the power, weight and frequency of freight trains. Suffice it to say, it is unlikely that it would be possible to run the contemporary American rail network on wood powered steam locomotives today. In fact, we can probably attribute the continued growth of rail in the 19th century after the 1860s to developments in coal extraction – by 1880 trackage had increased to 90 thousand miles, while consumption of wood was cut to a third of the 1860s numbers.

The bitter truth, however, is that while superficially the forest powered infrastructure was much more environmentally destructive than the current coal and oil powered fleet,  the current system is  in reality worse by an order of magnitude. Deforestation is a real problem, but forests can grow back in the matter of a few generations, or at worst, centuries. Deforestation alone likely can not cause run away climate change. On the other hand, while the carbon spilled into the atmosphere by coal and oil based transportation systems has no obvious immediate effect,  in the medium to long term it has the disastrous effects of climate change, and if not mitigated, run-away climate change.

The implication of this contrast to me is the following: environmentalism as appreciation for our life-world in lived experience is insufficient for the problem of fossil fuel caused climate change. If all U.S. forests had been cut down to run trains, this would be an environmental disaster – but one which would likely precipitate a populist environmental response out of people’s experience of seeing the forests retreat. Analogous experiences of climate change are comparatively rare and murky (i.e. observations of glacier retreat), and have not yet been sufficient to garner the political will necessary to stop climate change. The connection between an engine spewing CO2 and a retreating glacier is infinitely less obvious than the connection between a chugging train and a retreating forest.