You know the feeling you get when you’ve completed, say, a woodworking project, maybe making a deck chair or something, and it took forever, and screws and nails are embarrassingly sticking out in random directions, the legs are wobbly, right angles are scarce, and generally, the thing looks like it belongs in Picasso’s Guernica? Even with my “standards”, it takes forever to finish a project. And that’s doing it at my leisure; imagine needing approval from all your friends and family for every step of the process. In essence, that’s what building infrastructure is like – building it is one thing, making everyone happy is something else.
That’s how it goes when you build things these days; delays can (and do) come from anywhere. It always takes longer, it always costs more. This isn’t news, but few seem interested in the profound significance of these problems. “Let’s just change everything” is like a joyous battle cry to hordes of eager and well-meaning people that think the world can be changed just because we want to and we’re enthusiastic. The enthusiasm is great, but without focus and a plan, it’s just wasted effort, like volunteering to weed a city by hand because it’s better than using pesticides.
We’re living through this now, as we rush towards an “energy transition”. The IPCC brought down the vision for mortals, the scripture for mankind to fulfill in order to save the planet as we know it: “….Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C…would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems… These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors…”
Notice the cagey enabler in that quote: “…system transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed…” Upon such f__ed up gibberish is the world proceeding at full speed: You’re doomed if you don’t accomplish these unprecedented transitions, but it’s all possible because they’re not unprecedented in terms of speed. Hmm. Well, the only system transition of the magnitude they’re talking about that is not unprecedented in terms of speed is an earthquake. And their plan will achieve the same results if their playbook is enacted literally.
How are these unprecedented transitions to be accomplished? Not their problem. They just shrugged and said hey, you’re all doomed if you don’t, so, well, it’s up to you. From that fright came a ten-second wildly oversimplified plan: get rid of fossil fuels, convert to renewables, save the day. Just like in a movie.
Maybe too many people have been watching too many movies. A lot of people believe in near-magic remedies. We won’t get to this promised land by finding a magic hammer in a mountain somewhere, or through a trident guarded by some weird prodigious sea serpent that lets the hero past because he’s a sweet talker. There’s no magic wand, and, just as importantly, there’s no villain to throw into helicopter blades.
Well, there is, but there’s a problem there. The villain is me, and it’s you. We’re the consumers, particularly us rich westerners. I suppose we may choose to throw ourselves into helicopter blades, and then yes I’d agree, problem solved. Funny though, I’ve yet to see a single volunteer. Let’s assume then that that’s not going to happen.
We’re not going to sacrifice ourselves, and we apparently aren’t going to give up our standard of living either. And the Rest of the World, 3-5 billion who want our lifestyle, aren’t going to throw in the towel either.
It can’t be said often enough, apparently: replacing the infrastructure that has built up over a century with a renewable energy one is a challenge that is almost incomprehensibly large, given the inertias and realities of everyday life. It’s like moving Mexico City 30 miles to the east. I don’t care what your timeline is, the challenge is incalculable.
Don’t believe me? Check this skull-splitter out. Apologies, it’s long and boring, but if this is too much to take in, best take yourself out of the running from the energy transition. It’s also American, but Canada wouldn’t be much better. Let’s start with this article that describes some of the realities of modern infrastructure change, abridged for your sanity:
“You might expect that there’s a subcommittee somewhere in the US legislature that oversees America’s infrastructure. And you’d be correct. The problem is, there are several of them — in each chamber — all claiming some jurisdiction over US infrastructure. The result: trench warfare.
“When browsing through a list of the standing Senate committees trying to determine who has jurisdiction over infrastructure, you might naturally stop at the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee…[which] oversees communications, highway safety … regulation of interstate common carriers, technology research and development of policy, standards and measurement, [and] transportation.
“But there are subcommittees within Commerce, Science and Transportation with overlapping interests… [t]here’s the Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over wireless communications…there’s the Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security subcommittee, which oversees the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration…the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee, which, among other things, oversees the National Institute of Standards and Technology…Finally, there’s the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over interstate transportation policy issues, and oversees DOT and the Office of Research and Technology, as well as independent transportation regulatory boards… But subbcommittees often disagree within the framework of the larger committee they’re serving — sometimes due to constituency and re-election issues, occasionally due to ideology, and there are some other standing committees with jurisdiction over similar, and sometimes the same, aspects of infrastructure..the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee enjoys jurisdiction over urban mass transit systems and general urban development issues — road infrastructure in cities would need their OK. There’s the Environment and Public Works committee, whose jurisdiction includes construction and maintenance of highways, and a subcommittee called Transportation and Infrastructure that oversees “transportation”, according to their website. But wait, you may be saying… How can there be a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee that has jurisdiction over transportation, while you just read about the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee claiming the same jurisdiction? Well, that’s part of the problem…believe it or not, there are four others (in each chamber!) that also claim some oversight over transportation and infrastructure. And if you begin to include things like data security and collection that number gets even bigger.
“And let’s just say these committees all, through sheer luck, managed to agree on exactly what was needed for infrastructure in a sweeping reform and funding bill. They’d still have to get through Appropriations, which has the final say in allocating monies for the bill. And, wouldn’t you know it, there are Appropriations subcommittees that could wind up at loggerheads over money, too. There’s the Transportation and HUD subcommittee, which funds DOT as well as surface transportation projects, but there’s also the Energy and Water Development subcommittee, overseeing the US Army Corps of Engineers and others that build civic works projects.”
There, hard enough for ya? Oh wait – it gets worse. The article goes on to demonstrate “the astonishing delays infrastructure faces at the state level.” It chronicles an effort by the city of Huntington Beach, California to build a new saltwater-to-freshwater water treatment plant that was deemed by the state’s governor to be an emergency. A more in-depth Reuters article chronicles the laborious nightmare: the project was proposed in the 1990s; permitting began in the early 2000s; and it was officially approved by the city in 2006, after which it required approval for 24 permits from different state agencies. Each new permit could (and sometimes did) result in design changes that had to go back through other permitting chains once again. In 2013, the company scrapped the entire plan after being ordered to study the impact on fish larvae, then resurrected it again in 2015, but withdrew it in 2016 after “the commission” (how they can keep track of the commissions is beyond me) demanded that the project be made compliant with some new State Water Board rules, which required reapproval of the project.
These articles were from 2017-18, at which point the Reuters article concluded that “The project still needs three more approvals, from the State Lands Commission, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board and the California Coastal Commission.” Wow, down to three! The end must be in sight, you might be thinking you poor optimist…
Wading through this bureaucratic sludge pit, there’s the feeling that something’s missing, some ominous element that can sucker punch the poor builders like nothing else…oh yeah, there they are: “The plant is far from a done deal,” says local environmental group the Surfrider Foundation, a banana-republic coalition of sun-addled surf addicts will be fighting the project further because it is “unnecessary, expensive and energy-intensive.” Not In My Back Ocean.