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.


16 comments on “Rolling On the River

  1. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, our transportation infrastructure is all petroleum based and can’t continued forever. We pretty much all know that. The question is how do we prepare for it. I believe the readers of this blog have the best chance by just trying to establish a more local business support. I believe that the relationships built now with local business owners will be very beneficial in the future if or when the current transportation infrastructure fails. As for me, I’m just going to keep trudging along with growing vegetables on vacant lots. 🙂

    Have a great rolling on the river day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      You’re doing great work Dave. If the transportation infrastructure collapses, and all those barges filled with oil, sand and soybeans for China end up on stranded on the river, your gardens will still be producing delicious and nutritious food for your community.


  2. avwalters says:

    Another good reason to buy local.


    • Bill says:

      Definitely. Our culture has made itself dangerously food-dependent upon a transportation network that is fragile. Strong, healthy, resilient local food economies will always be important. The time may come when they are essential.


  3. bobraxton says:

    the Northwest Earth Institute in a study circle on Sustainhability had a projection that everything will end approximately 2030. This seems to feed into such dire prediction.


    • Bill says:

      I’m not a pessimist. If the locks need fixing, I expect they’ll get fixed. If corporate profits are at stake then I expect that fixing will become one of our society’s highest priorities. More importantly (and less cynically), even if the entire system collapses (which I don’t think is likely–at least not long-term) we’re a resilient species. I think we’ll find a way to get along. But I do expect history will judge us harshly for our lack of forward thinking.


  4. shoreacres says:

    (Ahem. Cough, cough. Allow me to put my tongue just slightly in my cheek. Ok. Now:..)

    Perhaps we could find some of those billions that were designated as “economic stimulus funds” and which were meant for infrastructure repair. There seems to be some question about where the bulk of that money landed.


    • Bill says:

      Good point. You set me to wondering–what did happen to all that money?

      It turns out that only 3% of the total package was spent on infrastructure (around $30 billion), notwithstanding all the rhetoric. Recall that the point was to dump cash into the economy immediately–thus the emphasis on “shovel ready” projects. Infrastructure improvement takes time to plan and implement, so the funds went elsewhere. Here’s a breakdown I found:

      if not infrastructure, where was most of the stimulus money spent? About $500 billion went to tax cuts, unemployment benefits, and “state fiscal relief” (shoring up insolvent state budgets). The remaining $300 billion was spent on actual projects, of which the big beneficiaries were: (i) subsidies for clean energy ($78 billion), (ii) subsidies for education and child support ($50 billion)(student loans, special ed, and support for disadvantaged children), (iii) health and health IT ($32 billion), (iv) transportation infrastructure ($30 billion, as noted above); (v) environmental cleanup ($28 billion), (vi) new buildings ($24 billion), (vii) scientific research ($18 billion), and a few other categories.

      Here’s a good article about it (from which the quote was taken):


  5. ….clogging the river…hopefully not in more ways than one. Locks built to last 50 years, now 80? We should be so fortunate nowadays – who builds anything to last as long as 50 years? Besides homesteaders, that is….You’re right, the whole thing is not good, and such a symbol of our greed and need for immediate return – no long term investment in infrastructure, no looking ahead.


    • Bill says:

      I’m sure the main concern is that there will be backups or stoppages in moving the barges. But as I read about the congestion and decaying infrastructure, and thought of all that oil floating on the river, I couldn’t help but wonder if this isn’t a recipe for an environmental disaster. Let’s hope not.


  6. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Before I even read the first pargraph, there’s something that’s been juggling at me for a while now…
    There are those who WANT an oil pipeline and I can’t help but wonder just what lengths they’re willing go to to get it…


  7. “We all have to keep our fingers crossed that when those inevitable glitches occur, they will only be minor.” I am not opposed to crossing my fingers, but only after I have a solid action plan in place. The fingers are crossed in hopes that I don’t have to use. One would have thought we would have learned from Katrina. –Curt


    • Bill says:

      Inevitable catastrophic failure? Warding off disaster with crossed fingers? You’re right that those kind of comments are unsettling.

      While some of this may be exaggerated by the industry concerned about freight costs that have doubled and the prospect of diminished profits, I don’t like the thought of the river jammed up with barges full of oil and fracking sand, running through decaying locks and being skippered by rookies.

      The Katrina comparison seems like a good one here. But we seem to be better at reacting than at being proactive.


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