What Should We Do Instead?

07/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

The Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference, sponsored by the Sierra Club and the BlueGreen Alliance of environmental groups and labor unions, has been chock-full of ideas for how we can simultaneously end our dependence on coal and oil and jump-start our economy. That message was driven home by a star-studded array of speakers, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi but also including Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Senators Jeff Merkley and John Kerry, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

One example: The BlueGreen Alliance used the conference to release the results of a new study on the opportunity to create green jobs, reduce our oil dependence, and slash emissions of carbon dioxide by shifting more of America's freight traffic from trucks to rail. Currently, bottlenecks and inadequate infrastructure force many shippers to use more-expensive (and polluting) trucks to get their goods to customers. A ton of rail freight can be carried more than 450 miles on a gallon of diesel fuel -- that's roughly equivalent to a 450-mpg car!

If we electrified our railroads, as Europe has done, we wouldn't need to use any oil for rail shipments. As it is, UPS regularly has the lowest carbon footprint among its competitors because it relies heavily on getting its containers onto railcars, using trucks only for the "last mile" from the nearest railhead.

Investing in our freight-rail infrastructure is obviously also key to developing a world-class passenger-rail system, since in most of the country outside of the Boston-Washington corridor freight and passenger trains would share the same railbed.

Right now, the debate is focused on a goal of shifting ten percent of America's truck traffic to rail. That's not ambitious enough. Given the evidence that's pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, we need to get America off of oil as quickly as we can.