by John Konrad (gCaptain OpEd) With a staggering 15,000+ miles of navigable waterways, it’s critical to note that river barges can carry over ten times the cargo of trucks while producing a mere tenth of the carbon emissions per ton mile. America’s waterways are an untapped goldmine in the fight against climate change. Yet, the Biden Administration has shockingly spent less than 1% of the colossal $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Act on the single most carbon-efficient mode of transportation. This glaring oversight begs the question: is this administration serious about meeting climate goals? Or are there other motivations at play?
In a fiery exchange that set Twitter ablaze, garnering over 7.2 million views and catching the eye of Elon Musk, the issue of climate change investment has been thrust into the center of public discourse. In the viral video, Republican Senator John Neely Kennedy locks horns with Biden’s Deputy Secretary of Energy, David Turk, in a high-stakes debate over the staggering sums required to meet 2050 targets. In the end, Turk could not quantify the eventual cost or answer how much spending $50 Trillion to solve the problem would reduce global temperatures. Although the adversaries concur on the need for carbon neutrality, their heated exchange calls into question the United States’ genuine commitment and the full cost of the Biden Administration’s green energy plans.
Scrutinizing the allocation of these trillions of dollars casts doubt on green intentions. While the ostensible progressiveness of electrifying roads and curbing aviation’s carbon footprint might be alluring, it falls woefully short of the transformative potential that investment in the world’s most energy-efficient mode of transportation—our inland and near coastal waterways—could deliver. Climate activists in the Biden Administration claim we have no time to wait yet the United States is frittering any opportunity to leverage its extensive network of rivers, canals, and coastlines, which, if properly harnessed, could propel the nation toward carbon neutrality in a cost-effective and efficient fashion. This leads to the question: is the Biden Administration serious about reducing carbon, or are other factors at play?
Could current green energy plans be designed to sink, rather than boost, the economy? Is there a better, science based, alternative that this Administration refuses to explore?
In an era where the climate crisis weighs heavily on global consciousness, the United States harbors a golden opportunity within its own borders—its vast network of waterways. River barges and ferries, boasting ten times the capacity of trucks and emitting a mere tenth of carbon emissions per ton-mile, present a formidable solution. These waterways primarily run North/South, parallel to the most congested highways. Yet, America’s unparalleled waterway system languishes, neglected and underfunded. Our barge and ferry fleet grows old and sparse, while our extensive network of rivers, canals, intercostals, sounds, and seas pleads for infrastructure investment. As the Biden administration pursues ambitious 2050 CO2 targets, it’s high time to shift our focus and resources toward waterway transportation – a remarkably efficient and eco-friendly mode of transportation that has long been hiding in plain sight.
Spending up to $50 Trillion – or even an additional $1 Trillion – on carbon reduction without including waterways is untenable and unserious.
Waterways Left Behind
Spanning over 15,000 miles – with the option to add thousands of additional miles via investment – America’s navigable waterways, encompassing rivers, canals, and coastal routes, hold enormous potential for goods transportation. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) has spent a paltry sum of under $1 billion on waterways under Biden, leaving its potential untapped. Even when money is spent on ports – like the EPA’s $4 Billion Clean Ports Program to electrify drayage – is often spent on port trucks and rail not the most carbon-efficient transportation means itself.
Even more shocking than the dearth of federal maritime earmarks is the federal employee count. It is critically important to note that The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and MARAD are sister organizations in the DOT yet the one that administers the least carbon-friendly means of transportation – the FAA – has over 45,000 employees while the one that administers and advocates for the most energy-efficient transportation – MARAD – has only about 800.
Carbon Reduction Or Votes?
The disparity in leadership focus is startling as well. Pete Buttigieg frequently shares updates about roadways and aviation, yet often goes weeks without mentioning MARAD. Meanwhile, MARAD’s top official, Commandant Ann Phillips, is virtually a ghost.
Science proves that waterway transport is the most carbon efficient but does it pull in voters? With the Biden Administration ignoring waterway development we cannot help but question whether the DOT is genuinely committed to reducing carbon emissions, or if their primary concern lies in addressing transportation issues visible to the voting public. Voters may not often encounter barges, but they certainly spend considerable time in airports and on roads where Buttigieg spends the majority of his time and taxpayer money.
Electric School Buses Highlight The Danger
The recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill sets aside $5 billion for the electrification of school buses—a mere sliver of what is being spent to electrify road transportation—while hundreds of billions more are earmarked for other green road and air projects. Yet maritime transport remains sidelined.
School buses have become a media focal point amid the Biden Administration’s climate plans, as zero-emission, non-polluting buses hold an undeniable appeal for parents. However, the popular narrative glosses over a critical issue: the heavy weight of electric buses and the basic physics behind this problem. Diesel has long been the fuel of choice for buses due to its higher energy density and lower flammability compared to gasoline or lithium batteries.
Electrifying buses increases vehicle weight because the weight and reduced energy density of batteries leads to greater energy consumption per mile – not less – but an even more pressing concern lies in the potential danger of heavier buses on the road. In 2020, there were 4,998 fatal crashes involving large trucks and buses, most of which were diesel-powered. Common sense is all that’s needed to understand that heavier buses will lead to more severe accidents and an increase in fatalities.
Alarmingly, there is scarce information on the potential consequences of increased bus weight, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ceased posting its annual Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts report in 2020. This lack of transparency raises questions about the true impact of electric buses on road safety, an issue that deserves attention as we strive for a cleaner and safer transportation future.
Energy Density And Hills
“Energy density is among the most important and most overlooked criteria,” says global energy researcher Vaclav Smil and author of How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going. “And there are no EVs. They are battery vehicles reflecting the electricity’s origins. If I were to buy an EV in Manitoba, it would be a 100% hydroelectricity, truly zero-carbon energy, car. In North China, it is a 90% coal car, in France it is a 70% nuclear car, in Russia mostly a natural gas car and in Denmark a 50% wind car, et cetera.”
But few advocates for green energy understand the basic physics of the problem. Even most maritime proponents do not understand why water transport is three times more efficient than trains, ten times more efficient than trucks, and one hundred times more efficient per ton-mile than aviation. When asked, most think it’s because water is relatively frictionless. That is true but it’s only a small part of the reason. The primary reason is that ships and barges never have to climb up hills (some deep rivers running far into the interior are an exception as are canal locks), while aircraft need to lift every ton of cargo they carry thousands of miles into the sky.
It’s incredibly energy-intensive to lift cargo up hills and ten thousand miles into the air. Yet America’s biggest proponent of the green transportation transition, Secretary Pete Buttigieg, has never mentioned this simple fact and spends the majority of their time advocating for road projects and the least energy-efficient transportation method of all: aviation.
And besides the added weight of batteries increasing overall energy consumption, heavier trucks also put added stress on roads and bridges, further escalating future infrastructure repair costs.
The Economics Of Water Transport
This oversight becomes even more perplexing when taking into account the environmental benefits of maritime transport. With the lowest CO2 emissions per ton-mile compared to road, rail, and air transport, maritime transport is a remarkably eco-friendly alternative. Furthermore, weight is not a major concern for river barges, as they don’t share roads with school buses or family SUVs. As a result, equipping electric barges with heavy batteries poses minimal safety risks. Additionally, since these barges don’t need to traverse uphill terrains, the increased energy consumption from electrification is significantly lower than that of electric trucks and trains.
If the administration were serious about achieving its 2050 CO2 targets, they would prioritize river and waterway transportation. It’s not only the most carbon-efficient means of transport by far, but it also has the potential to revitalize our economy and create jobs. In his book ‘False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet,’ former Greenpeace activist and climate economist Bjorn Lomborg claims that every dollar spent on road electrification has a return on investment of less than a dollar. He urges the government to look for investments that will improve the environment and provide a return on investment.
Lomborg’s arguments are controversial, with proponents claiming that investing in renewable energy and climate-resilient infrastructure not only reduces emissions but also generates substantial long-term economic benefits and jobs, making it a sound investment for the future. The question is what kind of jobs and at what cost? The 2021 closure of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York has led to billions in spending on offshore wind, and billions more will be spent over future decades maintaining electric generators in the harsh ocean environment. All of this spending leads to jobs and the electricity it generates spurs economic growth, but renewing that reactor would have provided the economic growth with a far lower cost and environmental impact to whales and the marine environment.
This is not to say that wind and solar don’t have their place in the transition to a carbon-neutral future, but it does underscore the importance of prioritizing the most cost-effective and energy-efficient solutions. And when it comes to transportation, investing in our waterways and Short Sea Shipping is a no-brainer because it increases economic wealth and lowers carbon emissions.
“The balance of transport determines wealth and security,” says Peter Zeihan, a geopolitical economist and author of The End of the World Is Just the Beginning. “America’s rivers transform cities deep in the interior such as Pittsburgh, St. Paul, Sioux City and Tulsa into ocean ports… Any culture based upon those waterways will be ridiculously capital-rich.”
Few people question why the most carbon-efficient mode of maritime transport has been largely overlooked by the Biden Administration, but those who do often point to the long decline of American maritime subsidies, the Jones Act, and the rising cost of shipbuilding. They discuss sea-blindness and the American public’s disconnect from, and limited knowledge of, the ocean. In response to my tweet on this topic, several individuals referred to Hanlon’s razor, suggesting that we should never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance.
Indeed, it is true that America has largely remained ignorant of the immense value of our coastlines and river systems. Few Americans have ever been aboard a barge or ferry. Five years ago, I would have agreed with the Hanlon crowd because very few people in Washington grasped the maritime industry’s significance in global trade. Only colossal accidents, like the Deepwater Horizon explosion, captured national news headlines.
So, despite the undeniable benefits of waterway transport, the heightened focus on maritime affairs, the immense economic advantages of investing in waterways, and the unprecedented spending approved for transportation infrastructure, why do Secretaries Buttigieg (DOT) and Granholm (DOE) barely mention ships or advocate for waterways? Why has the nation’s climate change diplomat, John Kerry, not spoken at the UN’s International Maritime Organization or engaged with European leaders who are investing heavily in river transport? Why is Secretary Blinken not highlighting China’s incredible river system growth?
Why is it that European shipping company executives – many of whom were giddy when Trump was defeated – are increasingly vocal about the need for our industry to embrace climate initiatives but do not offer more support for inland waterway systems? The CEO of Maersk, a staunch proponent of ESG investments, has spent more time meeting with Chinese leaders than their American DOT counterparts. Why during the port crisis – which was exacerbated by intermodal congestion – did they not visit Washington and ask for permits to build short sea shipping terminals along America’s waterways to reduce the load on America’s highways and train terminals? If climate change is genuinely a global problem, why haven’t shipped executives demanded meetings with Secretary Pete Buttigieg to demonstrate the remarkable benefits that investments in short-sea shipping have provided to the European Community? It’s time for these industry leaders to step up and champion the cause of sustainable, efficient maritime transportation on a global scale.
“(Container ports) are pockets of concentrated pollution,” said White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi. “You can be accelerating in the direction of more productive, more efficient hubs of economic activity but we can cut emissions at the same time.”
Few can provide a satisfactory answer, but perhaps David Turk’s remarks in the video debate can shed some light on the matter. He noted that while America contributes 13% of the world’s carbon emissions, it is vital to curb domestic use in order to lead by example and encourage other nations to reduce their emissions. If Turk’s assertion holds true, then prominent advocates of ESG in the global shipping industry should be engaging with Buttigieg and Phillips to persuade them to adopt short-sea-shipping practices already embraced by Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, the vast majority have yet to take such action.
The most skeptical of Biden’s climate push suggest a more cynical reason for neglecting ships. They argue that Democrats not only want to limit carbon in the United States but also seek to raise taxes to expand the government and restrict economic growth to dampen consumer spending, thereby reducing imports of carbon-intensive products from overseas factories. The government could achieve this by throttling ocean shipping imports, but that would not create the pork-barrel government spending projects that electrification does.
This argument seems far-fetched, but it does contain a grain of truth. If America were to invest heavily in rivers and waterways, truck, rail, and airplane emissions would decrease, but the economy would strengthen, spending would increase, and carbon-polluting factories would be built on American soil.
A more realistic tilt on this argument is that investments in rivers lead to building industry along waterways and allowed factories to hide further inland where they polluted into rivers, wreaking havoc on ecosystems and public health, until advocates like Rachel Carson exposed the problem. Unchecked industrial discharge, often containing hazardous chemicals and heavy metals, was released directly into rivers and waterways, leading to staggering levels of contamination. These pollutants not only poisoned aquatic life, but also compromised the safety of drinking water sources, causing long-term damage to both human and wildlife populations. The toxic legacy of this era of environmental negligence serves as a stark reminder of the importance of sustainable practices and the need to protect and preserve our precious natural resources for future generations.
Indeed, in today’s environmentally conscious society, it has become increasingly challenging to construct new factories due to the prevailing “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) sentiment. Communities are more aware of the potential negative environmental and health impacts that factories may bring, leading to greater resistance to their establishment in residential areas. This heightened vigilance underscores the growing importance of sustainable development and responsible industrial practices in order to mitigate the concerns of local populations.
It is true that previous generations of waterway investments did lead to factories sprouting up along rivers far into the nation’s interiors. Many did pollute horribly. But in 2023 this argument is less valid. Factories can’t hide anywhere in America without citizen journalists and environmental groups finding out. Companies can no longer build factories without environmental impact plans, studies, and continued monitoring far into the life of the factory. Organizations like the Riverkeeper are vigilant about nefarious activity along our waterways.
I don’t believe that climate activists in Washington want the economy to falter, but it is true that the most extreme among them don’t want it to surge either. Many of these rivers are in environmentally pristine areas that have suffered from pollution directly tied to the economic booms that historic inland shipping projects like the Erie Canal brought to vast regions of the nation but that problem was mostly solved in the US decades ago. I say in the United States because many of those problems were just exported overseas. Would it not be good for the global environment to return factories to the United States where they can be better monitored for environmental harm?
Claiming to be an environmentalist while fighting against nearshoring factories might seem hypocritical. Do some consider it easier to simply choke off funding for the rivers and waterways returning industry critically needs? Waterways that give factories access to more land, labor and lower transportation cost?
Could the Biden administration not encourage the development of environmentally-friendly industries and technologies, and promote sustainable permitting along rivers and waterways? This approach could help address environmental concerns while also supporting economic growth and job creation but it’s not part of the current administration’s plan.
On the other hand, even the staunchest proponents of economic growth acknowledge that more shipyards would immensely benefit the US Navy, which stands ready to challenge China—a nation that has experienced exponential growth through investment in shipping and where trillions of dollars from Wall Street still reside.
Ignoring Marine Highways and pouring money into electric roads does accomplish one thing: expanding the government without increasing the size of the economy. And work towards that end is moving forward ahead of schedule.
Are these factors the reasons we have allocated only 0.085% of the massive $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to maritime projects that would boost the economy, improve US Navy shipbuilding, significantly reduce carbon emissions, and help bring American industry home? I’m just struggling to find reasons for this oversight.
If not ignorance then is the problem just a lack of inertia?
Why Does Not Matter – Reversing Course Does
Ultimately, the reasons behind the Biden Administration’s relative neglect of waterways and shipbuilding are less important than the need to change course. Focusing on waterways, which offer significant carbon savings, appeals to Democrats while investing in waterway shipbuilding is crucial for Republicans who seek to bolster shipyards that build for both waterways operators and the US Navy. This bipartisan win-win opportunity cannot be ignored.
The Biden Administration’s minimal allocation of just 0.085% of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Act to America’s waterways, the most carbon-efficient mode of transportation, is a baffling and disconcerting oversight, but it is not too late to remedy. Boasting an unparalleled 15,000+ miles of navigable waterways, the potential for river barges to transport ten times the cargo of trucks with only one-tenth of the carbon emissions per ton-mile is too significant to dismiss as is waterway investment’s ability to nearshore factories and boost exports. As our nation confronts the existential threat posed by climate change, it is time for policymakers and congressional staffers to reassess our priorities and seize the transformative potential of investing in waterway transportation.
The United States cannot afford to squander the opportunity to harness the economic and environmental benefits offered by our extensive network of rivers, canals, intercostals, sounds, and seas. The failure to prioritize maritime investment, despite its cost-effectiveness and energy efficiency, raises serious questions about our nation’s commitment to achieving our climate goals. Is the administration truly focused on reducing carbon emissions, or are there other, more obscure factors at play?
If Biden and Buttigieg and Granholm won’t invest in waterways then policymakers, courts and Congress must hold the administration accountable for its actions and demand a more significant investment in maritime transportation infrastructure. We must not let ignorance, inertia, or misguided priorities overshadow the urgent need for bold, innovative solutions that will propel the nation toward carbon neutrality AND boost the economy. The time for half-measures is over; our nation’s future and the planet’s health depend on decisive action. Now is the time to seize the opportunity that lies within America’s waterways and fully utilize this untapped goldmine in the fight against climate change.
That is unless the purpose of the Biden administration’s “generational spending” on the great “energy transition” is really just a means to get votes or, as Bjorn Lomborg suggests, actively hamper economic development and progress.
Stay Tuned For Part 2 – Diversity
John Konrad’s next article in this series on ESG policy as it relates to waterways will scrutinize the diversity (DEI) initiatives within container shipping lines and the Department of Transportation. While these policies have succeeded in hiring more women and minorities for executive roles, they have neglected the pernicious effects of container dumping – dropping millions of containers into some of America’s poorest, and most diverse communities like Newark New Jersey. Container dumping that disproportionately afflicts the health and well-being of some of our most socioeconomically vulnerable minority communities.
Part two will also ask why shipping companies assure their shareholders of their commitments to diversity and social governance yet seldom visit Washington to engage with American policymakers or invest in transshipment via electric barges that could move containers from poor communities without dumping them on trucks. Part Two of this series will expose the hypocrisy of advocating for diversity while neglecting the potential of our rivers and waterways.
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