Diversifying America’s Transportation Portfolio: A “Green Deal”

The Green Deal

Okay. Let me get this one out of the way: gas hasn’t been all bad. In fact, gas has allowed us to accomplish some pretty amazing things. To be clear, when I say “gas,” I’m using the term as an easy way to loosely refer to all liquid fuel products made from buried and fossilized hydrocarbon deposits.

Ooooh… I can hear the flamers’ keys clicking away furiously already. But, before you type that horribly thought out gunslinging response, hear me out.

Up to this point gas has made an excellent energy source:

  • It’s liquid at normal human temperatures
  • It’s relatively non-volatile (meaning it doesn’t explode easily, is easy to transport, and doesn’t require too much in the way of safety precautions)
  • It can be stored very cheaply ($100 will get you a tank that holds 17 gallons)
  • It’s relatively easy to get out of the ground
  • It has a large amount of stored energy compared to it’s volume and weight
  • It doesn’t use up much land per unit of energy produced

For all of these reasons, the US (and the rest of the world) has had an ongoing and tumultous love affair with the nasty stuff for the better part of a hundred years now, and as long as gas is available, that relationship will continue in some part.

Gas has allowed us to flourish and develop at an unprecedented rate; but even a few decades ago, if we had all sat down and honestly thought about it, we could be reasonably expected to conclude that there was no way our monogamous relationship with oil could continue in perpetuity.

By way of analogy, imagine this story: 30 years ago, Bob (that’s what I’ll call him) started building a fund for retirement. Bob only had money to invest in one thing at the time. Just by chance he chose to invest in a company called Northern Natural Gas. That company was doing pretty well so he decided to keep investing his money in that company’s stocks, and only that company’s stocks, even though maybe he knew better.

Time went on, Northern Natural Gas started buying up lots of little subsidiaries and changed its name to Enron. Life was good for Bob. His little sweetheart investment was returning him oodles of money. In his mind, it was only a matter of time before he was sipping mai-tais on the beach chuckling to himself about the poor saps who didn’t have such a huge investment in Enron.

Then came the year 2001. Bob was finally starting to plan for his retirement the next year. He started to hear rumblings about Enron. He began to do some research and got worried about his sweetheart. He even contemplated taking his money out early. He called around. His gut was telling him to sell all his stocks. But Bob didn’t heed it. The next day his stock was worthless.

Mai-tais on the beach turned into tap water in the apartment.

My point is that there is not one single financial adviser, not one, with even the slightest shred of common sense, who would tell you that Bob’s plan was sound. A diverse portfolio is a healthy portfolio — regardless of whether you’re talking about stocks, demographics, or even transportation. Putting all your eggs in one basket may increase short term gains, but in the long term it’s sure to spell doom.

Do you really think Bill Gates has all of his stock in Microsoft?

So why have we violated these basic tenets with our transportation portfolio? The US seems inextricably tied to the automobile and the use of fuels. Every transportation decision we’ve made in the last hundred years has been focused on one thing and one thing only: vehicles that run on fossil fuels and drive on the highway.

We’ve let our rail system turn into a joke. We’ve gotten rid of sidewalks. Bike lanes are an afterthought. Most subways are horribly antiquated. People live a gazillion miles from where they work. Roads bisect everything to the point where trying to get from point A to point B often times requires a car because there’s no other way to cross the eight-lane highway running through the middle of your city.

We’ve put ourselves in the exact situation that Bob faced. And Enron is about to fail, folks.

Diversity is good. It’s safe. It ensures that survival can happen even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Remember 1997, when that Apple stock looked like it was a loser and we should get rid of it. Well we held on to it (didn’t we?) because it rounded out our portfolio even though the greediest among us were probably telling us to ditch it. But who’s laughing now? We’re riding high on Apple profits.

Our transportation portfolio is in desperate need of diversification because right now it’s downright pathetic.

We need our politicians to wake up and realize just how much they love this country and forget about how much they love their current lifestyle. Because, even though they might be the last to feel the impacts, they too are not immune from a devastating collapse of social order.

It’s happened before. Way before almost anybody who’s reading this article was alive, we had visionary politicians who took a desperate moment and turned it into gold.

We turned the country around and made it better. We fixed our infrastructure. We gave people jobs. In that moment we stopped meddling in other people’s politics and fixed our own.

What we need is another visionary “New Deal for the American people.” A “Green Deal,” so to speak. The Green Deal would address the following issues:

  • Retraining US workers for “green” jobs and jobs that fit the new American economy
  • Getting old gas guzzlers off the road and helping to replace them with modern vehicles
  • Pumping cash into our long forgotten rail system and co-opting the technological advancements made by others in Europe and Asia
  • Fixing our existing roads and bridges
  • Developing and implementing new technology to help direct the flow of traffic
  • Upgrading our power grid and perhaps burying ALL our power lines underground
  • Encouraging local production and consumption as much as possible
  • Building solar, wave, wind, and geothermal energy facilities
  • Upgrading our hydro power facilities
  • Encouraging a wholesale shift in consumer automobiles from gas-only to plug-ins
  • Finding new ways for large trucks to be more energy efficient and implementing them
  • Balancing the needs of food production with fuel production by implementing cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel made from non-food crops on land that would otherwise be unproductive
  • Fixing our complicated and hassle-ridden air transportation network to the point that it’s essentially like getting on a train

And this all needs to happen now. If we’re smart, gas will still be a part of our diverse portfolio, but it will play a much smaller role. Ethanol and biodiesel will also be a part of that portfolio. So will plug-ins. So will commuter trains and buses and subways and light rail.

Because that’s what diversity is all about. It’s just that getting there will take a major shift in the will of the people and a group of visionary public servants to take charge.

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Image Credits: New Deal posters part of public domain and altered by author. Windmill picture from Ryan McD‘s Flickr photostream used under a Creative Commons license.

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.