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Vail Valley Voices: Peak oil puts rail resurgence on track

Bill Sepmeier
Vail, CO, Colorado
newsroom@vaildaily.com

During the recent heated debate over the use of that 88-acre piece of land east of Eagle, I noted that there is still an intact railroad track running through this valley.

While it is at best marginally maintained, at least east of the American Gypsum plant, which uses rail service regularly in shipping its product west, this track may soon be the valley’s most important transportation resource.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times story, “Warren Buffett is a believer (in railroads). In November, the world’s second-richest man paid $34 billion for railroad giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., despite a deep downturn in the railroad industry. Buffett characterized his investment as an ‘all-in wager on the economic future of the United States.'”

Why? Because the age of automobiles and diesel trucks is ending as you read this column. The total amount of oil remaining for the world to burn is now in decline. According to Burlington Northern, a train can haul 1,000 pounds of freight 400 miles on a gallon of oil. A fully and optimally loaded semitrailer truck can haul the same 1,000 pounds of freight only about 100 miles with the same gallon of oil on level terrain. Trucks perform far less efficiently than that in the mountains.

For the past 150 years, the world’s oil supply grew exponentially, allowing similar growth in economies and human population.

According to an increasing volume of data, production worldwide peaked at just more than 85 million barrels per day in 2007 and has now commenced an inexorable, merciless decline.

The rate of measured decline not due to recession-lowered demand is more than 6 percent per year globally, even allowing for new fields such as untapped Iraqi reserves. Demand, however, while slowed somewhat in growth due to global recession, is still rising.

It was recently calculated by the International Energy Agency that if the world’s economy remains in stasis, or doesn’t grow at all, except in India and China for the next five years, demand for oil will require six more Saudi Arabias pumping at the Saudis’ full output to provide the expected demand.

Obviously, since no such fields have been discovered since the 1960s, a pending shortage of oil threatens the basic economic survival of today’s oil-based Western lifestyle.

The Road Transport Association calculates a 15 percent oil shortage will spike costs by more than 550 percent.

At a 6.7 percent annual decline, the world will see shortage double that in less than 10 years. In reality, things will be worse since exports of oil fall faster than production declines, as producing areas retain more oil for their own use.

Warren Buffet’s no genius. He just understands basic arithmetic and then believes the answers, sort of like an above-average 9-year-old. He doesn’t let preconception and wishful thinking cloud the results of his valuations. He acts on the answers.

The era of freight moving on highways is already over, and Buffet understands that life post-peak oil will devolve quickly while re-employing technologies that served mankind well, and profitably, before the modern oil-fired illusion temporarily replaced them.

Buffet’s awareness of the facts and purchase of the Burlington Northern lines should make us feel more than a little elated that the federal government never allowed Mr. Anshutze to rip up that track and let Eagle County replace it with a bicycle path. It would be extremely hard to haul all of Vail, Avon, Beaver Creek, Edwards and Eagle’s daily freight up from Denver, or even from Dotsero, on bicycles … and Dotsero is where the track joins the still-going rail line.

In an area that is utterly, 100 percent dependent on imported goods, a railroad track will allow for life support once the state of Colorado is too broke to fuel the plows and keep the decaying, pothole ridden, rockslide impacted nightmare called I-70 open for business when diesel is $20 per gallon, business and personal tax revenues have fallen 60 percent (their present year-on-year decline nationally right now), and there is no federal bailout money coming in to keep the lights on under the Golden Dome on Colfax.

The present owners of the proposed gargantuan strip mall recently rejected by Eagle’s voters, or Mr. Lapin, who wisely retained some land along the tracks, will do well to hold onto it, since a rail freight depot east of Eagle serving the surrounding community will be a profitable use for that property in the not-too-distant future.

The Westin Hotel in Avon is perfectly sited for a new rail passenger station, delivering tourists to and from their new hotel at the base of Beaver Creek.

Those tracks will provide the route for what few tourists still have the resources available to go skiing to get to the mountains here in years to come.

Yes, it’s a six-hour trip to Denver by rail. But having taken it, I’ll assure you it is a very pleasant ride, the views are spectacular, the seats large and comfortable, and you can wander to the observation car and enjoy snacks, a couple of beers and get to know a few of your fellow passengers. An AMTRAK ticket from Denver to Glenwood Springs and back is about the same price as a tourist van ride today, and there’s no comparison in style and comfort. None.

Aspen pulled up the tracks connecting their city to Glenwood Springs and the main line decades ago. In a few years, they’ll rue the day they thought that was a good idea.

Fortunately, despite a lot of effort to get rid of the rails here to make room for ever-more now second homes, we still have our silver rails, though they’ve rusted a bit since the trains stopped running every day.

They’ll be back in use long before some magic monorail ever flies over two 11,000-foot-high passes, and this small community of small communities will still be here because of them.

Bill Sepmeier lives off the grid in Sweetwater.


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