By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

The Rise and Fall of U.S. Infrastructure Part II: The Fall

By Jeff Danner Posted September 1, 2013 at 3:10 pm

In Part I of this series I reviewed the rise of infrastructure in the United States.  This week we will explore the fall and how it came to be that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has given the current condition of our infrastructure a D+ grade due to crumbling roads and bridges, leaking water mains, and many other deteriorating systems.

There is no particular mystery in determining why our critical infrastructure systems are falling into a state of decay.  According to data from the Congressional Budget Office, the spending on transportation and water systems as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from 5% in 1960 to less than 3% today.  Given that current U.S. GDP is approximately 15 trillion dollars, this two percent reduction corresponds to a $300 billion “shortfall” in infrastructure investment.

If this was an ordinary news article on infrastructure spending, we would be finished now.  But here in Common Science, we delve a bit further into matters and try to find the root causes.  Below I propose three contributing factors to why I think we have stopped investing adequately in our infrastructure, one psychological, one political, and one thermodynamic.

Psychological

Building new things is a lot more fun and interesting than maintaining old ones.  Let’s consider some local examples.  When we decided that we needed an upgraded library in town we passed bonds, held fund raisers, and poured champagne at the grand opening.  (Please note, this is not a criticism of the new library which I think was a great investment.)  In contrast, just up Estes Drive from our beautiful new library are two aging schools, Phillips Middle and Estes Hills Elementary, which struggle each year to scrape together sufficient funds to fix leaking roofs and repair broken sidewalks.  At the church my family attends, the parish has raised and borrowed millions of dollars to build a brand new fellowship hall, yet the historic original chapel is in desperate need of a paint job.  This same dynamic is operative at the national level, where our legislators are much more inclined to allocate funds to splashy new construction projects rather than spend money on mundane things like repairing storm water systems.

Political

For the past five years President Obama has recommend a broad array of infrastructure investments to grow our economy and secure our economic future.  During most of our history as a nation these would have been considered non-controversial suggestions and enjoyed broad partisan support.  Consider that the three major pieces of national infrastructure legislation that I discussed in Part I were all signed into law by Republican presidents, the US Highway Act of 1924 by Coolidge, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 by Eisenhower, and the Clean Water Act of 1972 by Nixon.

Unfortunately, the political climate in the U.S. has turned against infrastructure projects with Republicans decrying them as socialism and Democrats shying away from supporting them for fear of being labeled “tax and spend” liberals.  As a result, President Obama’s recommendations for infrastructure investment have mostly foundered in Congress.  If our current infrastructure is to be repaired and the infrastructure we need for the future is to be built, this political climate will need to change.

Thermodynamic

During most of the 20th century when the U.S. was pouring money into infrastructure systems, a substantial portion of the funding came from fees and taxes collected from the oil industry.  The oil industry experienced tremendous growth from its infancy around the year 1900 until its peak year of production in 1972, with an output of 9.5 million barrels a day.  Profits and taxes from the oil companies in the 1950s and 1960s helped to build our highways, fund the space program, finance the construction of suburbia and pay for the Vietnam War.  It was easy money.

From 1972 to 2006, U.S. oil production fell steadily to only 5 million barrels a day, a 48% reduction from its peak.  Around 2006, oil companies in the U.S. started to utilize horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to aggressively exploit low-purity oil deposits which are contained in shale rock formations.  These operations have increased U.S. oil production to its current level of 6.2 million barrels a day, leading to splashy headlines stating that U.S. oil production is up by 20% over the last few years.

So if U.S. oil production is up by 20% since 2006 why aren’t we back to the days of easy money and fixing our roads and bridges?  The answer is a thermodynamic one.  Back in the 1960s when you could drill into easy-to-reach, easy-to-pump, high purity oil deposits, we could expect a thermodynamic return of twenty units of oil energy for every unit of energy expended during extraction. This ratio is called energy returned over energy invested, or EROEI.  Due to the difficulties in extracting and processing it, shale oil production has an EROEI of only five making it a far less profitable enterprise than exploiting traditional oil deposits.

Conclusion

Whatever the psychological, political, and thermodynamic challenges may be, we will eventually need to address the issues arising from our crumbling infrastructure.  However, there is an important question to ask first.  Do we have the correct infrastructure for the 21st century?  If so, then we should get busy repairing it.  If not, we should consider making some changes going forward.  I will address those issues next week in Part III, the conclusion of this series.

Comments box goes here.

Leave a Comment

Recent Articles

More Lifestyle