Friday, December 10, 2010

Industrial Stagnation

By Chris Philips,
Managing Editor, Pacific Maritime Magazine

The late 18th and early 19th century saw the dawn of the industrial revolution, whose impact was felt throughout the world and which catapulted the United States and its citizens to an unprecedented level of wealth, safety, health and comfort that we enjoy to this day.

In 1775, the New York firm of Sharpe and Curtenius cast the first cylinder for a steam engine in the new world. Twelve years later, John Fitch of Pennsylvania built a working steam-powered boat, operated by six pairs of mechanical oars. In 1790, his second steamboat reached seven miles per hour on the Delaware River. That summer, it operated a passenger service from Philadelphia to Burlington, Bristol, Bordentown and Trenton.

In 1804, Robert Stevens built a steamboat 68 feet long, with a 14-foot beam and a revolutionary, 100-tubed boiler. At the same time, Oliver Evans was in production of 50 high-pressure steam engines, as well as an amphibious steam-powered paddlewheel dredge that he drove under its own power from his workshop to the Schuylkill River.

In 1807, Robert Fulton’s steamboat North River, later known as the Clermont, made her maiden voyage from New York to Albany. The next year, Robert Stevens sailed from New York to Philadelphia (the first sea passage by steam power), and in 1811, the first steam-powered ferry, Juliana, began operation between New York and Hoboken, New Jersey.

By 1814, steamboat service was operating between New Orelans and Nachez, Mississippi, and in 1819 the Savannah became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic.

Between 1824 and 1831, the first school of science and engineering opened in the United States, the Erie Canal opened from Albany to Buffalo, New York, the first freight and passenger-carrying rail line in the US was incorporated, and the first US-built steam locomotive, Peter Cooper’s Tom Thumb, began working the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, replacing horses.

These milestones were the product of unfettered scientific and commercial ventures, and they were powered by coal.

Last month, Washington State’s Cowlitz County granted a shoreline-development permit to an Australian company that wants to build a shipping terminal in Longview, Washington. The company, Millennium Bulk Logistics, a subsidiary of Australia’s Ambre Energy, hopes to export 5 million tons of coal a year, brought by rail from Wyoming and Montana. The coal will go to China to fuel that country’s own industrial revolution, presumably offering the opportunity to 1.3 billion Chinese for the same unprecedented level of wealth, safety, health and comfort that we enjoy. In exchange, Millennium Bulk Logistics says the company will create 120 family-wage jobs in the Longview area during construction and 71 full-time positions at the terminal once it comes online.

But all is not smooth sailing for the terminal. Like the 19th-century Luddites that saw technology as a threat to their way of life, environmental activists, from hooded anarchists in Portland, Oregon to Hollywood stars, and all the way up to the White House, scorn the coal that continues to fuel much of our fragile economy. In 2008, on the campaign trail in San Francisco, then-Senator Barack Obama promised to price coal out of existence as a source of electricity: “So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them, because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

Locally, environmental activists are opposing the terminal, hoping the required permits will be denied by state or federal regulators. “This is an emerging area of law,” says Jan Hasselman, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, speaking to the Seattle Times. “But we shouldn’t have commissioners in Cowlitz County making what effectively are decisions of national and even international significance.”

Some would argue that we shouldn’t have radical environmental groups like Earthjustice involved in what are effectively local decisions. Earthjustice claims 776 different members and associations, including the usual suspects like the AFL-CIO, Bluewater Network and the Humane Society, and eco-radical groups like the Basel Action Network, The Sierra Club and Greenpeace.

Of the 776 groups that make up Earthjustice, the overwhelming majority consists of attorneys, who apparently make a “non-profit” living accepting donations to sue the federal or state government, which, in turn, pays large settlements from tax receipts, presumably from the people whose jobs have been eliminated by the eco-lawyers.

It is becoming more difficult in the United States to harvest or extract our abundant natural resources, and those we can extract are considered to be too dirty to use. Now, the eco-obstructionists don’t want anyone else to use our resources either. The Luddites are back.

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