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— by Pat Foran, Editor
Whatever the political climate this summer or fall or winter or the next several seasons after that, coal-based electricity will continue to be a key driver of the U.S. economic engine. And for the largest Class Is, coal, which accounts for about one in five railroad jobs and one in four railroad revenue dollars, will continue to be king, as Managing Editor Jeff Stagl notes in this month's cover story. But with the mid-term election season just beginning to kick into a higher gear, and as the winds of (possible) political change begin to pick up, various climate change proposals that aim to curb coal consumption are being considered in Congress. As a result, uncertainty about the commodity's longer-term future reigns.
The rail industry's consensus message to Congress: Look before you leap as you consider those pieces of legislation that attempt to address carbon emissions from coal and other sources.
"Without coal, the U.S. rail network would face a need for vast restructuring with greatly reduced capacity to invest in the nation's rail network infrastructure," Association of American Railroads' President and CEO Ed Hamberger said in testimony he delivered to the Congressional Coal Caucus on May 25.
Again, there'll be no "without" and "coal" in the same sentence in the near term, but railroads can't afford to throw caution to the aforementioned wind. So, they continue to make recommendations to any lawmakers and policy shapers who'll listen.
For starters, they'd like lawmakers to consider enacting contingent allowances in legislation for railroads that "see a decrease in coal revenue as a direct result of climate change law," as Hamberger put it. Railroads also support the development of advanced carbon capture and storage capabilities. ("With these technologies, America would continue to produce affordable electricity ... energy independence would be promoted, and the environment would be protected," he said.) Railroads also would like lawmakers to enact legislation that would preempt Environmental Protection Agency regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant. ("Regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the EPA would be complicated, unpredictable and inefficient," Hamberger said, noting that some states already have passed laws to limit emissions.)
Whether any climate change proposals make it through the wringer (and what they'd look like, post-wringing) is, of course, anybody's guess. In the meantime, the rail contingent will continue to send its message(s), just as it will with respect to the positive train control mandate. As Hamberger told the coal caucus in a sentiment that also would have been relevant during a PTC hearing: "If railroads cannot afford to renew and expand their capacity, more rail passengers and freight will move by less efficient, less environmentally sound ways across overcrowded highways."
It can be a fine line, this green one — actually, there are two shades of green involved here — that railroads walk when it comes to coal. But it's walkable. Especially if railroads continue to walk the walk as they walk that line.
On June 28, the Federal Railroad Administration announced it will begin accepting applications for $2.1 billion in HSR grants and an additional $245 million for individual construction projects within an HSR corridor. Applications and proposals are due Aug. 6. Grant awards will be revealed by Sept. 30, FRA says.
Count us in, some state officials said without hesitation. "The [California] High-Speed Rail Authority and California will compete aggressively for our share of these funds to supplement the federal stimulus funds we have already been awarded and the state funds committed to the project by the people of California," said CHSRA Chairman Curt Pringle. But transportation officials elsewhere (in Oregon and Pennsylvania, for example) indicated they weren't likely to seek a piece of the grant pie this time around, citing the challenge of coming up with the required 20 percent funding match — by the Aug. 6 deadline or, perhaps, ever, according to published reports. Meanwhile, palpable rumblings regarding state DOT staffing shortages (and the corresponding impact on meeting grant application deadlines, for instance) continued to echo across would-be HSR corridors as this issue went to press.
That echo, and those published reports and prepared statements, all serve as reminders that the slow ride to high-speed rail is just that. We'll listen to the rumblings, read the reports, talk with the (would-be) players as the HSR evolution continues and share what we know on HSRupdates.com, our subscription-based website dedicated to high-speed rail.