Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Never send a pipeline to do a train's job

Got this email from my local Rep. saying "Thousands of potential jobs sit on the sidelines and we continue to rely on oil from the Middle East" because we haven't approved construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Baloney, I say.  Keystone XL pipeline?  Bah!  Who needs it?

There has been much braying and trumpeting going on in good old Washington DC lately about how, when and if the Keystone XL Pipeline gets built.

If you listen to the trumpeting, you'd think all of western civilization hangs in the balance.  If we could just build this pipeline, unemployment would be solved and then all that Canadian and North Dakotan oil would flow downhill to our refineries and we could tell the Middle Eastern oil producers what they can do with their oil! (Sell it to China and India, perhaps?  That's where it's going now, anyway.  Most of our oil comes from our hemisphere.  Only 13% comes from the middle east.  Check it out! where does our oil come from?)

If you listen to the braying, you'd think we (and our food animals) would be all eating, not only genetically modified corn, but well lubricated corn, as well - that all of Nebraska would become just one big oil puddle if the thing sprung a leak. (example here: The pipeline is the root of all evil)

But, from both of them you get the idea that no pipeline = no oil.

So, I'll let you in on a secret.  We don't need the Keystone XL pipeline.  

I'm not talking about solar or wind or biomass or natural gas or coal or even conservation.

I'm talking about a way to get all that oil to where it needs to go without building a pipeline from anywhere to anywhere - RIGHT NOW!

Trains are moving the oil.

Well, you say, "how much oil? Trains can't possibly move as much oil as a pipeline."

Well, you would be wrong.  Trains can move ALL the oil.

Here are some facts.

The Keystone XL pipeline is designed to handle 830,000 barrels a day.  That sounds like a lot, until you find out that one single train can carry 89,000 barrels of oil. (for the detail oriented:  A barrel is 42 gallons.  A tank car can hold 30,000 gallons.  A train can have 125 cars.  Do the math!)  So, the Keystone pipeline can be replaced by nine trains a day.  Is that a lot?  Not really.

Consider that railroads run 100 coal trains a day out of the Powder River in Wyoming.  50 years ago, that number was near zero.  The track and equipment to reach that total was put in place in a span of a decade or two.  So, can railroads rise to the challenge of moving crude oil.  Certainly, they've proven  more than that in recent past history with coal.

This coal train is on the last 50 miles of it's 1700 mile trip.  One of approximately 100 coal trains a day to operate out of the Power River Basin in Wyoming.

In fact, they've already proven it this year.  Right now, railroad are carrying more than 800,000 barrels of oil a day to east coast refineries - a longer haul than the planned 1200 mile pipeline.

Here's another fact to consider - the value of the oil in transit.

The 3 foot diameter pipeline holds ~ 1.25 barrels per linear foot.  In order to get 830,000 barrels a day out of the end, the goo has to flow at 5 mph.  Oil trains can average about 20 mph terminal to terminal, so trains only tie up 1/4 of the inventory that would be tied up in transit in a pipeline.  How much is that inventory worth?  At 20 mph for 1200 miles, it would take about 23, 125 car train sets to handle 830k barrels per day.  At $100 a barrel, that's $2B in oil on the move.  For the pipeline, it would be four times that - $8B!  That's a lot of money to have laying around doing nothing!

So, if RRs can do it all and do it faster, why all the interest in the pipeline?


It's not about national security or jobs or stifled energy production.  None of that.

It's just transportation cost.

Pumping the goo through a three foot pipe at 5 mph uses quite a bit less energy than a train of tank cars moving 40-50 mph.  Energy isn't cheap.  Also, every train needs a fresh, two man crew every couple hundred miles.  Not so for the pipeline.  The difference might be a few cents per gallon in price at the pump for us.

Also, to some extent, safety.  Railroads run though the middle of towns because those towns grew up along the rail lines when it was the only way to get around.  An oil train derailment in a town could be a mess.  A new oil pipeline can avoid towns.  Even though railroads have a generally excellent safety record, pipelines are a bit safer, inherently.

Sum these up and the balance tilts toward the pipeline by a nose. long as you have a lot of product,

...going from A to B,

...for a long time.

That someone is willing to build it for profit tells me the economics are likely there.  So, the way being clear, let them.

But, is the pipeline the "ultimate answer to life the universe and everything"?  No. (42 is the answer) We could live without it.

Easily.  So why all the fuss?

But, our friends in Washington need something to do. Trumpeters and brayers, how about this?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Smog, gridlock, long's the bicycle's fault. Really!

Welcome to a "connect the dots" adventure...

Dot #1:

I was in Chicago in early April.  Went to the Museum of Science and Industry.  Nerd heaven!  The new U505 submarine display is fantastic.
Worth the price of admission just for that.

Oh, wait.  Where was I?  Bicycles.  They also had a display on the history of bicycles.  What we think of as a normal bicycle was called the "safety bicycle" in the late 19th century and it took the bike out of the realm of novelty and made it into practical transportation.  It had two, same size wheels, pedals in a good ergonomic position connected to the rear wheel by a chain drive, and pneumatic tires for a smooth ride. It was easy and safe to ride.  Most everyone wanted one.  Many people bought one.

Dot #2

There was a problem, though.  Not many suitable streets and roads to ride them on.  This started the political push for better roads.  The people got what they wanted.  Nice smooth roads.  Everyone was happy.

For a while.

Dot #3

Better machine tools  + plus bicycle technology + the availability of decent roads + mass production + available petroleum distillate fuels
Cheap automobiles for everyone!  No more pedaling!  No getting wet in the rain! No more waiting for the next trolley!


People wanted even more and better roads, and bridges.  Road building took off in the 1920s and kept going in the 1930s, took a short break for WWII, but then got going again in a big way in the late 1940s.  The two lane US highway network was built out.  States, particularly in the east, were building Parkways and Turnpikes.

Then, the Eisenhower Interstates.  You can read a bit about it here:

Dot #5

Everybody buys a car.

Dot #6

People have cars and roads leading from the city to the country.  Isn't the country nice?  Lets drive there every Sunday.  What's this?  They are selling houses in the country?  Only a 30 minute drive back to the office?  Let's buy one!  The Boss likes his new country house so much, he move the office out to the country, too!

Dot #7

Everybody buys a house in the suburbs.  Everybody drives everywhere.  Nobody walks anywhere.  Bicycles?  You'd get run over!  Jobs are scattered over the same landscape as houses.  Traffic flows from everywhere to everywhere.

Dot #8

Roads get crowded.  Air is full of smog.  30 minute commute is now an hour.  Gas prices go up and down, but mostly up - nobody can predict how much and when.  Everybody is using a lot of gas and finding more oil it is getting harder and more expensive. Living in the "country" is becoming less fun.  Boy, I wish I had that "walk three blocks to the 30 minute subway ride to the walk 5 blocks to work" commute back.

Dot #9

Hey, Mr. Politician!  How about building me some transit so I can get to work without all that traffic!  (Actually, build that transit so all those OTHER people will used it and get off MY roads and out of MY way!) But, don't tax me for it!  Tax somebody else!  And, don't tax my gas.  The price is killing me right now!

So, bicycle, it's all you fault!  No bicycle, no roads.  No roads no cars.  No cars, no suburban sprawl.  No suburban sprawl, no traffic.  No traffic, no smog.  Q. E. D.

Which brings us to....

Dot #10

There is no dot #10.  Not yet anyway.  Life arranged around highway induced sprawl is a poor fit for transit.    Transit takes large amounts of people along dense, linear corridors efficiently   Roads are more like a spider web.  Hardly anybody is going between the same nodes on the web, even if they share some of the same routes to get there.  Transit is expensive to build and requires on-going operating support, too.  Who is willing to pay?

There is no shortage of ideas about what to do.  There are those who say "Congestion?  Build more roads!"  They are wrong, though.  Road construction just induces more traffic and more sprawl.  Isn't that the problem?

There are those that say "Build transit!" But, what they really want is a rail line that goes from near their house to near their job.  One seat.  Direct.  Cheap.  Fast.  Frequent. It's simply impossible to build transit for everyone when life is arranged around roads.  There just isn't the density of O-D pairs to make it go.

There are those who say "Force everyone back into high density living through creative taxation, then we can build good transit".  But, what they are really talking about is social engineering and central planning.  The very thing that brought us high-rise slums and urban decay, among other ills.  And, weren't those freeways that brought us the sprawl "centrally planned"?  Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

There is no magic way out of this.

But, take a look at what's happening.  People are moving back into the cities, getting drivers licences later and eschewing automobiles.  Zipcar has popped up places, allowing people who only need a car occasionally to use one.  Short term bicycle rentals are being put in place in some cities, allowing people to use bikes for the "last mile" of a transit trip.  Sometimes these changes occur after new transit lines are built, like in Portland OR.  But elsewhere, these trends are leading transit development, like in Atlanta, where the new urban dwellers are pushing hard for the Belt Line project.

So, maybe we don't have to take any draconian actons.  Maybe the solution is to do things incrementally.  A commuter rail line here, a light rail line there, some express bus service, and even some targeted highway projects.


Meanwhile, I think I'll go for a ride on my bike.