Waterways Journal Editorial
WJ Editorial

Let’s Keep Climate Analyses Honest

On September 22, National Public Radio ran a piece whose headline told its stance: “Barges are very efficient. Does that make them a good climate alternative for shipping?”

The piece didn’t have any new facts to offer regarding the emissions advantages of barge transport over truck and rail. Instead, it quoted Olivia Dorothy, Mississippi River restoration director with American Rivers. She is a familiar barge industry critic. In April, in another NPR piece, Dorothy also raised questions and used vague language without offering any clear facts or compelling counter-arguments. That piece noted that “environmentalists are pushing back” on barge industry assertions about the greenness of barges.

The problem is, they don’t have much to push back with. “The numbers on fuel efficiency are from studies paid for by the barge industry,” she said. “And we don’t have good independent figures on what the actual emissions are between trains and barges, so it’s not a proven fact that barges are the best option.”

Well, yes, we do have those figures. We disagree with the innuendo that the results of the Texas A&M  Transportation Institute study are not independent. The TTI study team worked transparently, with publicly available figures that anyone can check. Dorothy points out that the TTI study considers river transport from a “system-wide” perspective. She means that there are no figures showing whether or not a towboat’s emissions are the same when it is waiting for a lock transit as when it is pushing a tow downstream. That’s an easily fixed quibble.

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The piece also cites Jonathan Remo, a professor and river scientist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who says he is building a model to estimate the methane a dammed river emits from its decaying organic matter, versus a free-flowing river.

Remo says there are “climate trade-offs” when rivers are dammed.

Of course! That’s true of any human action. The fact that locking and damming the upper reaches of the Mississippi River has contributed to the loss of land at its mouth, among other consequences, has been well known for decades. We hope that if and when Remo creates his model, he will factor in all the emissions from the millions of truck and rail trips that a locked river with barging prevents. Anything less would be an incomplete picture.

The likelihood of the Mississippi River or Ohio River ever being “freed” from their locks and dams is extremely remote, as Dorothy admits. Against the climate benefits of allowing them to once again “flow free” would have to be balanced the costs of relocating dozens of cities and towns close to their banks, the loss of billions of dollars of waterborne cargo and accompanying increase in emissions from other transport sources and the huge increases in everyone’s cost of living that such losses and cargo substitutions would entail. The economic effects of any such “freeing” would likely be in the many trillions of dollars.

The only responsible environmental or climate analyses require a balancing of the costs and benefits to human beings of various human actions or inactions. Studies that compare a developed asset with its status in some imagined “natural” or preindustrial state are not useful policy guides.

While the barge industry has always said it could improve its emissions and has been conducting its own energy transition, we are also sure that it truly remains the greenest transportation mode.  We await any new studies with confidence.