Tag Archives: trains

Skelton: Let Go of the Future and Start Drilling

Brian mentioned this in the open thread, but it really deserves its own post, it’s such a ridiculous column. George Skelton today made a full-throated but deeply flawed argument for offshore drilling that as far as I can tell boils down to “well we did it in the past, and it’s not going to help in the future…so why not?!” and winds up arguing that we should sacrifice the future for hardly anything in return. The column doesn’t start off on a promising note:

On some beaches around Santa Barbara, you could feel the oozing tar between your toes — and that was long before a Union Oil platform five miles offshore spilled crud all over 20 miles of coast in 1969. For centuries, the tar naturally had seeped up through the sand, providing the native Chumash with caulking for their canoes.

Calling it “crud” is deliberately misleading readers about what actually happened in 1969. From UCSB:

Animals that depended on the sea were hard hit. Incoming tides brought the corpses of dead seals and dolphins. Oil had clogged the blowholes of the dolphins, causing massive lung hemorrhages. Animals that ingested the oil were poisoned. In the months that followed, gray whales migrating to their calving and breeding grounds in Baja California avoided the channel -their main route south.

The oil took its toll on the seabird population. Shorebirds like plovers, godwits and willets which feed on sand creatures fled the area. But diving birds which must get their nourishment from the waters themselves became soaked with tar….

Grebes, cormorants and other seabirds were so sick, their feathers so soaked in oil that they were not difficult to catch. Birds were bathed in Polycomplex A-11, medicated, and placed under heat lamps to stave off pneumonia. The survival rate was less than 30 percent for birds that were treated. Many more died on the beaches where they had formerly sought their livelihoods. Those who had managed to avoid the oil were threatened by the detergents used to disperse the oil slick. The chemicals robbed feathers of the natural waterproofing used to keep seabirds afloat.

In all 3686 birds were estimated to have died because of contact with oil. Aerial surveys a year later found only 200 grebes in an area that had previously drawn 4000 to 7000.

Skelton’s blithe dismissal of the ecological consequences of drilling is appalling. It’s not as if our oceans are healthy – oceans face crippling ecological crises and they’re in no position to withstand drilling.

Skelton goes on to turn “Big Oil” into a nostalgia piece (I’m guessing someone didn’t see There Will Be Blood):

Oh, another thing: My dad was an oil field roustabout, or driller or whatever job he could fill on a given shift. So were his dad, brother and cousins. They left their Tennessee farms and followed the migration to California for the 1920s oil boom.

My first summer job out of high school was in a Ventura oil field, an experience guaranteed to prod a kid into college if nothing else would. (But the oil job paid better than newspaper work, I soon discovered.)

So “Big Oil” never has been a big bugaboo for me. It was the producer of a vital commodity and provider of working-class jobs. Although oil derricks annoy many people as unsightly, I’ve always marveled at how they work, especially all lighted up at night.

Nostalgic memories do not count as a sound basis for public policy – unless of course he thinks we should go back to the days before OSHA, dump our toxic waste into the drinking water supply, and drive without seatbelts.

Worse is the conflation of Big Oil with working-class prosperity. Perhaps at some moment in the past this was true, but Skelton here merely reveals that he, like all the High Broderists, does not live in the 21st century, instead assuming that the conditions of the 1970s remain true today. They don’t.

Here in the 21st century Big Oil sucks precious income away form working-class families while returning hardly any in the form of jobs, taxes, or anything else resembling prosperity. And as anyone living near the Torrance refinery knows, they tend to actually have rather debilitating effect on working-class communities.

More below…

Skelton’s main thrust of the article is some weird attempt to argue that offshore drilling will actually produce self-sufficiency – since California uses so much gas, shouldn’t we drill offshore for more?

This argument has numerous flaws. First, Californians are reducing their gas consumption which has been relatively flat over the last 8 or 9 years. Conservation, not wasteful and useless drilling, is what brought prices back from the brink of $5 earlier this summer, and it alone is what will produce long-term savings.

Skelton tries to dismiss the correct argument that drilling now won’t produce usable oil for at least ten years:

Offshore exploration opponents point out that if the federal drilling ban were lifted today, there’d be no immediate effect on gasoline prices. It could take 10 years to get any crude to the gas pump. Fine. Most people driving today still will be 10 years from now.

This is a statement deeply ignorant of how oil works today. He is assuming that the supply of oil and the demand for oil will remain static so that in 10 years, the oil we drill off our coast will make it to the pump and reduce prices.

He is wrong.

The fact is that the demand for oil is soaring around the world, and it is becoming difficult if not impossible to increase production to match it. That is the phenomenon of peak oil at work and that is why gas prices have climbed by 30% every year since 2002. Supply can’t match ever-rising demand. The oil off American shores is so small an amount as to not be able to dent oil prices that, ten years from now, are very likely to be much higher than they are today. As demand rises around the world, oil companies will sell the oil we drill off our coast on a global market. The chances it will bring down the price of gas here in CA is next to none.

The only thing offshore drilling will accomplish is fouling our already suffering oceans and wildlife while lining the pockets of oil companies that sell the oil to China and India. How is that useful again?

Skelton does deal with the argument that lifting the drilling ban detracts us from the necessary long-term investment in alternatives – by dismissing it almost entirely:

Alan Salzman, founder of VantagePoint Venture Partners…adds, “The car industry is going to switch over to electric, and that’s a certainty. Hundreds of thousands of electric cars will be on the road in 2011.”

Let me know when one is affordable, practical and in the showroom.

People didn’t give up their horse and buggy until Henry Ford began making affordable cars. We’re anxiously awaiting our next transportation mode. Meanwhile, we’ll need to keep pumping gas — some of it from the Santa Barbara Channel.

Skelton needs to get out of the LA Times offices and take a look at the city around him. He might be surprised at what he finds. Hundreds of thousands of his fellow Angelenos have found alternatives to driving. That’s what enabled them to reduce their gas consumption and in turn bring down prices, albeit slightly. They bike. They walk.

His own paper reported on Metro Rail’s soaring ridership and again on Metrolink’s soaring ridership. Nowhere in Skelton’s drilling article is the MTA sales tax discussed, which would have the Subway to the Sea open by the time the first oil from the Santa Barbara Channel reaches Chinese gas pumps. Nor is high speed rail discussed, or clean bus technology, or greater urban density, or any other alternative to oil that is ready to go, right now, stalled merely for lack of political will that is currently being wasted on drilling.

Al Gore said it best at the TED Conference here in Monterey last March: drilling is “like a junkie looking for veins in his toes so he can get one last fix.” Drilling distracts us from the real problems our state faces, and for absolutely nothing in return.

Skelton doesn’t have to live in a future where the oil runs out and Californians, instead of building alternatives when we had the time and money to do so, are left with no viable alternative to oil. Unfortunately the rest of us do.

His plan for more drilling isn’t letting go of the past, it’s clinging desperately to the past in a blind refusal to accept the need to change in order to produce a better future. Just as California has failed its offspring by kicking the tax and deficit issues into the future, so too will it fail the future by drilling instead of developing alternatives.

If Skelton wants to live in the past, he’s welcome to do so. But he should not condemn the rest of us to do as well. California must change if we are to have a prosperous future.  

Why Intercity Rail Matters

We’ve had some good discussions on public transit lately, focused on moving people within cities via buses and trains. But just as important is intercity rail – getting people from one part of the state to another. And just as high ridership is bumping against budget constraints on city lines, so too is intercity rail running into capacity limits:

Amtrak set records in May, both for the number of passengers it carried and for ticket revenues – all the more remarkable because May is not usually a strong travel month.

But the railroad, and its suppliers, have shrunk so much, largely because of financial constraints, that they would have difficulty growing quickly to meet the demand…

“We’re starting to bump up against our own capacity constraints,” said R. Clifford Black, a spokesman for Amtrak….

Today Amtrak has 632 usable rail cars, and dozens more are worn out or damaged but could be reconditioned and put into service at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars each.

And it needs to buy new rail cars soon. Its Amfleet cars, the ones recognizable to riders as the old Metroliners, are more than 30 years old. And the Acela trains, which have been operating about eight years, have about a million miles on them.

We are running into similar problems here in California. Our intercity rail services under the Amtrak California brand, are experiencing soaring ridership. The Pacific Surfliner trains, from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via LA, are the second busiest trains in the Amtrak system, often with standing room only. The Capitol Corridor, from San José to Sacramento via Oakland, is the third busiest route in the Amtrak system, and it too is bursting at the seams with riders.

That we have these routes at all is remarkable, and is due to the passage of Proposition 116 in 1990, which sank $2 billion into passenger rail. Amtrak California is mostly funded by the state, and administered by Caltrans’ Division of Rail (with Amtrak providing most of the operations and some funding). But this investment has run its course and new funding is needed to expand intercity rail, so that Californians can travel from city to city without relying on their cars or on flights, which are either too expensive or nonexistent (can’t exactly catch a plane from San José to Sacramento).

Proposition 1B, the multibillion transportation bond approved in the 2006 election, was supposed to deliver funding to purchase more cars and expand Amtrak California services, including the creation of a “Coast Daylight” train from SF to LA via the 101 corridor.

Those funds haven’t materialized because Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Department of Finance stunningly claims that there is no need for new cars. According to the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC):

The Department of Finance, whose director Michael Genest maintains that public fund support for mass transit, particularly the intercity rail program, is not a legitimate expenditure of public funds, has conducted an “audit” that said “we don’t see you need it.” So, “we can’t spend any because of that.” That puts the expected order of new cars for the Surfliners, Capitols, and San Joaquins on hold.

What happened was that Genest sent auditors to ride the Capitol Corridor in the middle of the day on a Wednesday in the middle of January – traditionally a time of low ridership, whereas the route is packed to the rafters on weekends and during commute hours. This flawed “sample” enabled the Schwarzenegger administration to extend its war on public transportation to the successful Amtrak California system, in an attempt to starve it of services right at the moment when Californians are embracing intercity rail.

Intercity rail is crucial to this state’s economy. As gas prices rise fewer Californians are becoming in-state tourists. Places like Santa Barbara, Yosemite, and yes, Monterey rely heavily on visitors from the big metro areas to survive. Without reliable and available intercity rail they will see significant economic damage.

We’re also in the middle of an airline crisis as flights are cut back and fares inexorably rise. That is going to make it even more difficult – and more expensive – for Californians to travel around their state.

I would be remiss if I did not mention high speed rail as another solution to the need and demand for intercity rail. But even though it is a necessary project, it won’t open until the middle of the next decade. Amtrak California can help meet California’s needs right now – if only Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t bent on shackling Californians to oil.

Sure, Arnold doesn’t want to drill offshore, but if he succeeds in strangling passenger rail, that opposition won’t mean much for mobility and economic prosperity in our state.

Congress Funds Amtrak – While Arnold Proposes Transit Cuts

I will be discussing this and the state budget this morning at 8 on KRXA 540 here in Monterey

California is undergoing a profound change. The land where the car was assumed to be dominant always had a higher amount of transit ridership than folks realized – LA’s bus system is one of the nation’s busiest – but with gas prices blowing right past $4 and headed for $5, Californians are flocking to transit – buses, light rail, subways, Amtrak, you name it.

And how does Arnold Schwarzenegger, avowed friend of the little guy, always looking out to protect Californians from taxes that might lighten their wallets, react?

By proposing a $1.4 billion cut to public transit. This is nothing short of madness. Rising ridership is limited by available buses and train cars, while soaring fuel prices put stress on transit agency budgets. MUNI’s Nathaniel Ford puts it well:

“Even with California’s massive deficit, scaling back the state’s support for public transportation makes no sense environmentally or economically,” said Nathaniel Ford, who runs the San Francisco Municipal Railway.

“Every dollar spent on transit helps clean the air by getting people out of their cars. And with gas prices continuing to escalate, we should be doing everything we can to encourage, not discourage, transit use.”

Arnold likes to tell Californians he looks out for their jobs and their wallets, but how on earth is does starving public transit of funds and shackling Californians to their cars and to rising gas prices do anything at all to help grow the economy and keep money in voters’ pockets? The Vehicle License Fee that Arnold cut costs the state $6 billion a year in order to save drivers an average of $150 – which they’ll spend on higher gas prices in the space of a month. He still hasn’t restored the $5.8 billion he has diverted from transportation funds over the five years he has been in office.

Congressional Republicans have voted $14 billion for Amtrak – so why is Arnold instead attacking mass transit alternatives in California? Surely it doesn’t have anything to do with massive contributions he has received from big oil companies.

Arnold’s silence on gas prices – THE topic of conversation across the state right now – provides a golden opportunity for Democrats. Californians are screaming for more transit – more buses, more trains, more opportunities to save money and have an easier, faster commute. Democrats ought to ensure they have it – voters understand that the cost of a new tax will pale in comparison to the cost of rising gas prices. Strong Democratic support for high speed rail would also show voters that Dems mean business, whereas Republicans literally have no plan whatsoever to deal with gas prices.

The Bullet Train: Where the hell is it?

For years we have been promised a bullet train that would make us the envy of the country.  We would be able to hop a spur somewhere up in NorCal and be in LA in a few quick hours.  While the wrangling might get a little dirty between SF and Oakland, with a possible additional spur going to Sacto, we could handle it up here…right Bay Area folks? Worst comes to worst, somebody has to connect to the bullet on BART.  No biggie.

And even better, projections indicate that the train would ultimately make a profit. Now, maybe Southwest Airlines might not dig on it, but our environment would sure love it. It would be a boon to the goals of AB 32 to reduce our carbon footprints.  And, most importantly, wouldn’t it be sweet to hop on a train and get between our major cities in a few hours? Seriously, that would be freaking sweet.

But it is now 2007, and we have no train. No construction for a train. No bond measure has even appeared on the ballot, let alone passed.  WTF, mate? Well, follow me over the flip for more from the SFBG’s Steven T. Jones

How cool would it be to get the bullet train?  Pretty darn cool:

All the project studies indicate this should be a no-brainer. San Franciscans could travel to Los Angeles in just a couple hours, the same time it takes to fly, at a fraction of the cost. And the system – eventually stretching from Sacramento to San Diego – would generate twice as much money by 2030 as it costs to build. The trains use far less power than planes or cars and can be powered by renewable resources with no emissions. The system would get more than two million cars off the road and single-handedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 12 million metric tons per year. (SFBG 4-17-07)

The bond is still scheduled to appear on the ballot in 2008. Of course that doesn’t mean much, does it? It was also scheduled to be on the 2004 ballot, only to be pulled off the ballot.  Same thing in 2006.  So, why do you think this happened. I’ll give you one hint…umm…he’s a former professional steroid shooter bodybuilder:

Growing awareness of climate change has increased support for high-speed rail among legislators and in public opinion polls (among Democrats and Republicans), leaving only one major impediment to getting energy-efficient trains traveling the state at 220 mph: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

While posing for the April 16 cover of Newsweek with the headline “Save the Planet – or Else” and touting himself around the world as an environmental leader, Schwarzenegger has quietly sought to kill – or at least delay beyond his term – high-speed rail. (SFBG 4-17-07)

Now is not the time to choose cars over rail. Sure, we need improvements for our aging highway infrastructure, but we cannot choose it over roads.  It betrays the Governator’s true level of “Green-ness”.  The fact is that he still plays to his Hummer-driving base.

So, what are we to do about this? Well, time for us to start pushing for rail where we can.  Have you told your legislators that you want rail? Just give them a call, it’s a good start. But don’t give up there, raise the issue in Democratic clubs, with prospective candidates, et cetera. You know the drill…