The trouble with infrastructure

The trouble with infrastructure is that it breaks down and needs to be repaired, it wears out and needs to be replaced, and it gets destroyed and needs to be rebuilt. All that requires energy, resources, labor and money.

Conceptually, here’s the problem we face. The bigger we make any part of our infrastructure–roads, pipelines, electricity grids, water and sewer systems–the more expensive it becomes just to keep it in operating order. The same is true for our industrial plant, transportation system, commercial buildings and private homes. Things fall apart over time; entropy makes sure of that. To keep things from degrading to the point where they cannot function requires resources, labor and money–all of which cannot be spent on new infrastructure or productive investment, that is, all of which must go to maintain what we have rather than grow the economy.

The ancient Romans came face to face with this reality. Expansion of the empire had been paid for with booty seized from conquered populations. But once the expansion stopped, so did the booty. The Romans increasingly had to tax themselves in order to pay for large armies to protect the now very long border and for the necessary improvements in roads and other infrastructure to maintain their administrative and military presence throughout the empire.

It didn’t last. Eventually, the Romans had to pull back. They had to shrink the empire.

Today, we don’t think so much in terms of territory as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) when evaluating our material progress as nations. It turns out that one of the ways to keep the GDP growing is to skimp on maintenance.

In the United States, water systems have been a good place to skimp. After all, much of that infrastructure is underground or at sites remote from the cities it serves. Few will notice. Here’s what the experts are saying about the silent degradation of America’s water infrastructure:

Estimates of current investments in water infrastructure indicate that the backlog of deferred investments is increasing and renewal cycles are close to 200 years across the range of utility sizes. Resistance to rate increases combined with lack of appreciation of the buildup of renewal needs reinforces the need for effective business cases for pipe renewal. Based on these and other evaluations, it appears that a substantial gap exists between current expenditures on water main renewal and the investment levels needed to sustain system integrity. (emphasis added)

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has given near failing grades to the American infrastructure. In a report the ASCE describes the problems with the drinking water infrastructure this way:

Drinking water is delivered via one million miles of pipes across the country. Many of those pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years….While water consumption is down, there are still an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water.

But drinking water is just one example. A friend alerted me to recent train derailments at New York City’s Pennsylvania Station. The derailments caused enough damage to curtail train service for days. The problem is a 100-year-old infrastructure not built for the increasing demands put upon it. The governors of New York and New Jersey want Amtrak replaced as the station’s operator.

It’s no wonder that the perennially underfunded Amtrak is having trouble keeping up with needed maintenance. But putting someone else in charge doesn’t solve the problem of skimping on maintenance unless there is extra money. So, will the governors provide it?

Then there is America’s oil and gas pipeline infrastructure. Most of those pipelines are more than 50 years old. We seem willing to pay for rapid expansion of this system as is evidenced by 125,000 miles of new pipeline built since 2010 to accommodate the oil and gas drilling boom in the country.

But maintaining that infrastructure is just a drag on profits–until the consequences become so big that the clean-up and repair costs dwarf the phantom returns which deferred maintenance makes possible.

To be fair pipeline operators don’t want leaks or breakdowns. But neither do they want to spend more than they have to to maintain their systems. Who decides how much that should be is a problem regulators and companies are going to be hashing out as pipeline accidents continue to make the news.

All of this brings us back to the conceptual framework I presented at the onset of this piece. Here I turn to the much maligned and much misunderstood project called Limits to Growth. Limits to Growth, of course, refers to modeling of the trajectory of worldwide economic growth in the early 1970s and updated twice since then as detailed in three separate books.

The most frequent outcome of that modeling is the collapse of industrial society starting somewhere in the middle of this century. A common misunderstanding of that model is that collapse is the result of “running out” of resources. But a close reading of Limits to Growth produces a more nuanced and troubling answer.

It is the lack of capital needed to grow which produces the limits referred to in Limits to Growth. We will end up spending so much just to maintain our continually bloating infrastructure (in the broadest meaning of that word), to extract the needed natural resources to do that, and to fight the effects of pollution (through, for example, water and sewage treatment) and now climate change (through, for example, the building and maintenance of seawalls), that we won’t have anything left over for investment. When that happens, growth stops. Eventually, the economy shrinks as poorly maintained infrastructure become less productive. This is a collapse, but perhaps not a rapid one.

Infrastructure investment is lauded as the gift that keeps on giving. And, long-lived public and private infrastructure can and does increase economic productivity. But infrastructure can also become the leech that keeps on sucking when it becomes overly large and when we choose temporary economic pain relief and stimulants over the true medicine of forging a new trajectory for our infrastructure which requires deference to the limits we face.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.


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