Rolling On the River

I’ve been reading about the effect the oil and gas boom is having on the industrial transportation system in the Midwest.  One of its consequences has been significant railroad and barge congestion, which is having a serious impact on industrial agribusinesses.  Attendees at this year’s Ag Summit were told to expect continued chronic delays in shipping their products for export and in receiving fertilizer, feed and fuel.

Evidently the surging shipments of crude oil south from Bakken and the surging shipments of fracking sand north are now clogging up the Mississippi River just as they have already clogged up and consumed railroad capacity. Reading about the vastly larger volumes of crude oil being floated downriver on barges, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t a recipe for disaster.  I don’t know if the fracking chemicals are being transported by barge (as the fracking sand is) but that too sounds risky to me.

The increased freight demand on the river is creating manpower shortages as well.  The consultant who delivered the news at the Summit pointed out that it takes five years to train a riverboat captain. He also pointed out that the infrastructure on the river is old and is being strained by the new activity and higher volumes.

According to an Illinois grain farmer (past president of the National Corn Growers Association and Waterways Council board member), “The locks are being held together by baling wire and duct tape…. They were built to last 50 years, and some are now 80 years old.”

A representative of one of the freight companies said, “River logistics will be operating at 100% capacity through March and maybe beyond.  We all have to keep our fingers crossed that when those inevitable glitches occur, they will only be minor.”

The executive director of the Soy Transportation Council had a more dire prediction, “Catastrophic failure is not a matter of if, but when.”  He continued, “We are getting closer and closer to such a failure, and if it happens at harvest, it will definitely have an effect on farmer profitability.”

It seems to me there is a lot more than farmer profitability at stake.

Let’s hope no shortcuts are being taken.