Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Coal: Creating Private Wealth Offset By Public Debt

I remember learning somewhere, long ago, that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. 
Then, along came Albert Einstein who showed how matter and energy are in fact related, and even interchangeable under the right conditions. 
Think e=mc[squared]

Lately, I've been reminded that the earth was given its entire allotment of water at the time of its creation, and its now up to us to learn how to use it; hopefully, more efficiently and effectively with fair and equitable pricing mechanisms including a large dose of conservation!
The same may be said about coal and other natural resources, many of which are not easily sustainable.

How do these concepts relate to our current little problem of dealing with the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal and its dependency on hauling enormous amounts of our nation's coal along railways that bisect and disrupt and pollute American communities all along the way? 

Well, one way is that we the people ought to have a very strong voice in any decisions that impact our lives and our wallets!
There is growing evidence that many people have already waked up to that realization and are making their concerns public. I'm glad this is happening and happy to add my own voice in reflecting what others are saying and writing.

Another way the earlier concepts relate to us is that the proposal carries with it the promise of imposing an involuntary and unnecessary tax on every one of us, if the GPT proposal were to be approved in its present form. That ought to get everyone's undivided attention, whether a GPT advocate or not! If it doesn't, you are either brain-dead or anticipating a private payoff of some kind.

But, enough of my editorializing and on to the recent written thoughts of others:

The Bellingham Herald deserves credit for its reporting coverage of the growing GPT debate, with these citations;

First, the Whatcom Democrats met and approved a resolution against GPT.

Then, this report of BNSF's desire to add more sidings along our waterfront.

Today brought this article on last night's presentation to the City Council by the organization CommunityWise.

From Crosscut, new articles are coming thick and fast from Floyd MacKay:

1 - Coal train impacts to Boulevard Park

2 - Coal train impacts to Passenger service, etc, per CommunityWise report to City Council

3 - Coal train impacts to Pacific NW - PGE says no to use of property as terminal

4 - A brief plaudit to Mssrs MacKay and Simmons for their Coal train coverage to date; mention of Robert F Kennedy, Jr address in Portland about coal.
[an excerpt]
A little celebrity, now and then, is a good thing. As Billy Frank, Jr. learned during the Indian fishing wars of the 1960s and 70s, corralling a star like Marlon Brando to participate enhances media exposure. In the battle over Northwest coal exports — a debate expertly covered by Crosscut's Floyd McKay and Bob Simmons — a celebrity or two could be a political boon. So why not import a Kennedy to speak truth to power (and add a bit of glam)? "Several hundred activists gathered in Pioneer Courthouse Square today [May 1] to rally against exporting Montana and Wyoming coal from Northwest ports, an effort to signal the industry that it's in for a no-holds-barred fight," the Oregonian'sScott Learn writes. "Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.,  chief prosecuting attorney for Hudson Riverkeeper and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, took top billing. Based on his experience fighting coal mining in Appalachia, Kennedy told the crowd, coal would corrupt politicians, damage health and the environment and 'turn government agencies into the sock puppets of the industries they're supposed to regulate.'"  
The Blogsite Get Whatcom Planning has new posts on Coal Trains, yesterday and today. Check them out.

Finally, as the major player in the foregoing debate, the kindly Mr Warren Buffet has a few things to say - indirectly:

Mr Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway has begun the year very well, as this report shows.

More on Berkshire Hathaway:
Berkshire Hathaway's 2011 Annual Report contains some interesting information about BNSF Railway Company, specifically on pages 10, 11 and 70.

As excerpted and condensed from page 11: 
Revenues grew from $16.850 Billion in 2010 to $19.548 Billion in 2011
Operating earnings grew from $4.495 Billion in 2010 to $5.310 in 2011
Net Interest grew from $507 Million in 2010 to $560 Million in 2011
Pre-Tax earnings grew from $3.988 Billion in 2010 to $4.741 in 2011
Net earnings grew from $2.459 Billion in 2010 to $2.972 Billion in 2011

Excerpted from page 10:
An excerpt - BNSF [headquartered in Fort Worth, TX; 39,000 employees] is a very large business that is both regulated and capital intensive.
A key characteristic… is the huge investment [it has] in very long-lived, regulated assets, with these partially funded by large amounts of debt that is not guaranteed by Berkshire [whose credit is not needed]. [The business has] earning power that even under terrible business conditions amply covers [its] interest requirements. In a less than robust economy during 2011, for example, BNSF's interest coverage was 9.5x….
Measured by ton-miles, rail moves 42% of America's inter-city freight, and BNSF moves more than any other railroad - about 37% of the industry total. A little math will tell you that about 15% of all inter-city ton-miles of freight in the U.S. is transported by BNSF. It is no exaggeration to characterize railroads as the circulatory system of our economy. Your railroad is the largest artery. [our aorta?]
All of this places a huge responsibility on us. We must, without fail, maintain and improve our 23,000 miles of [owned] track along with 13,000 bridges, 80 tunnels, 6900 locomotives and 78,600 freight cars. This job requires us to have ample financial resources under all economic scenarios and to have the human talent that can instantly and effectively deal with the vicissitudes of nature, such as the widespread flooding BNSF labored under last summer.
To fulfill its societal obligation, BNSF regularly invests in far more than its depreciation charge, with the excess amounting to $1.8 billion is 2011. The three other major U.S. railroads are making similar outlays. Though many people decry our country's inadequate infrastructure spending, that criticism cannot be levied against the railroad industry. It is pouring money - funds from the private sector - into the investment projects needed to provide better and more extensive services in the future. If railroads were not making these huge expenditures, our country's publicly-financed highway system would face even greater congestion and maintenance problems than exist today.
Massive investments of the sort that BNSF is making would be foolish if it could not earn appropriate returns on the incremental sums it commits. But I am confident it will do so because of the value it delivers. Many years ago Ben Franklin counseled, "Keep thy shop, and thy shop will keep thee." Translating this to our regulated businesses, he might say, "Take care of your customer, and the regulator - your customer's representative - will take care of you." Good behavior by each party begets good behavior in return.

Excerpted from page 70 [Management's discussion]:
Railroad ("Burlington Northern Santa Fe")
We acquired [100%- had previously owned 22.5%] control of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation including its subsidiary BNSF Railway Company, ("BNSF") on February 12, 2010. BNSF's revenues and operating results are included in our consolidated results beginning immediately after the acquisition. Prior to that date, we accounted for our investment in BNSF pursuant to the equity method. …….

[ insert revenues and operating results, as summarized above]

BNSF operates one of the largest railroad systems in North America with approximately 32,000 route miles of track in 28 states and two Canadian provinces. BNSF's major business groups are classified by product shipped and include consumer products, coal, industrial products and agricultural products. The following discussion compares BNSF's results for the years ending December 31, 2011, 2010 and 2009.

Revenues for the year ending December 31, 2011 were approximately $19.5 billion, representing an increase of approximately $2.7 billion (16%) over 2010. Revenues from each of the four business groups increased between 8% and 19% as compared to 2010. Overall, the increases in revenues in 2011 reflected a 12% increase in average revenues per car/unit across all four business groups, as well as a 3% increase in the volume of cars/units handled. Revenues in each period include fuel surcharges to customers under programs intended to recover incremental fuel costs when fuel prices exceed threshold fuel prices. Average revenues per car/unit in 2011 included the effects of fuel surcharge increases of 35% as compared to 2010.

The 3% increase in volume is comprised of increases of 7% in cars/units handled in the consumer products and industrial products groups combined with a 4% decrease in volume for coal products. The consumer products volume increase was attributable primarily to higher domestic intermodal and international volume. The decline in coal unit volume was partially attributable to the impacts of severe flooding along key coal routes. Industrial products volume increased primarily as a result of increased steel and sand shipments, as well as increased demand in petroleum products. Agricultural product volume remained relatively unchanged, as higher wheat exports and U.S. corn shipments were mostly offset by declining soybean exports.

Operating expenses in 2011 were $14.2 billion, representing an increase of $1.9 billion (15%) over 2010. Fuel expenses increased $1.3 billion in 2011 primarily due to higher fuel prices. The remainder of the increase in fuel costs was driven by higher overall freight volumes and severe weather conditions, which negatively impacted efficiency. Compensation and benefits expenses increased $311 million, reflecting volume-related costs, as well as salaries and benefits inflation, increased personnel training costs and flood-related costs. Purchased services expenses increased $49 million due primarily to volume-related and flood-related costs. In 2010, purchased services also included one-time merger-related legal and consulting fees. Materials and other expenses increased $186 million, reflecting higher locomotive and freight car material costs and increased crew transportation, travel and casualty costs offset by lower environmental costa.

[omitted 2 paragraphs related to prior year results]
As a last thought, I am again listing my post of April 30, 2012, that lists all of my previous blogs on the subject of Coal.
I will also forward this one to Whatcom County Planning as part of the public record.