Monday, July 16, 2012

Montana coal trains ready to “spew”?

Railroads make money by hauling things that people want to buy. That money can in turn be used to improve rail service.

This is vital in places like Montana that depend on rail and highway transportation to access markets around the country and around the globe. As demand rises in Asia for coal from Montana and Wyoming, traffic from trains hauling coal will increase in Montana. On that point, opponents of coal mining in Montana are right.

Whether the trains will "spew coal dust across several states,” as the purple prose of the Billings Gazette photo caption states (using the language of coal opponents in an indirect quotation without identifying who used that word -- the text of the article doesn’t say), remains to be seen. With increased traffic does come the necessity for improvements, whether of safer crossings, more overpasses and underpasses, or lines that are routed around denser population centers -- all the things that high-volume rail traffic requires.

Coal opponents, as the Gazette article reports, claim that "the local impacts could be severe for local and state governments dealing with the increased rail traffic,” and that state and local governments could be left picking up the tab.

It is true that railroad crossings involve government funding, and that is because railroad crossings are a shared responsibility between governments and railroads. Railroads own the railway rights of way and the tracks, while governments own the roads and streets involved. This is primarily a federal responsibility, not a state and local one. The federal government brings in a great deal of tax revenue in corporate and individual income taxes from the coal industry. Any costs that state governments might incur will be more than made up for with royalties, excise taxes, and income taxes that the state collects.

What we are talking about here is what our friends on the left claim always to want the government to build -- infrastructure. But infrastructure that greases the wheels for traditional energy development (and that is a shared private/public responsibility, no less) apparently isn’t the kind of infrastructure they have in mind.

Why, the logical person asks, don’t opponents take a collaborative and constructive attitude toward coal development and the railway service that builds up around it? Just once, it would be nice to hear something to this effect: “We fully support the development of coal mining in Montana -- and we look forward to working with the coal industry and railroads to improve our railway infrastructure in Montana. We want coal development and we want rail traffic that disrupts our lives and our air quality as little as possible. So here are some suggestions that we think will work to everyone’s benefit...”

Would that be so hard? If the real agenda is global warming activism, I suppose it would be very hard indeed. If the real agenda could instead become economic development and our state’s fiscal health, then we might hope for something more constructive and collaborative.

Coal development should go full speed ahead in Montana, and those who are concerned about rail traffic should put their energies into finding ways to improve railway crossings and routes rather than into stopping coal-mining in Montana.


Dave Budge said...

Brad, I think you hope too much - but I sincerely hope I'm wrong.

Modern environmentalists tend to have little understanding when approached with rational cost/benefit analysis. To them, there is no benefit and all cost - and even costs which they only imagine will develop in improbable and fantasitic worst case scenarios.

Brad Anderson said...

Dave, you are right that I am hoping for a great deal -- and may even be a bit of a dreamer. Still, it seems to me that what really matters is not what kind of rhetoric happens on the extremes of either side.

What matters is which vision is more credible those in the great middle, who mostly want both clean air and the prosperity that economic development brings.

I remain stubbornly convinced that while we can never convince the extremist environmentalists of the benefits of coal and oil development, we can convince a solid majority, as long as we don’t discount concerns about their quality of life and the quality of their air and water.