The Persistence of Myth and Energy Infrastructure

October 11, 2022 |

If you’ve been around the renewable fuels movement, lately the renewable fuels industry, for any length of time, you’ve seen quite a few advocates and champions debunking what they contend are untrue urban legends. Indirect Land Use Change, ethanol’s return on energy invested, claims of engine damage from use of renewables, the list is long and myth-busting becomes something like the old Whack-a-Mole game, as soon as you debunk it once over here, it pops up over there. Whack! Then there. Whack! Then over somewhere else. Whack!  

The persistence of myth is something that many ethanol professionals know a thing or two about. I have wondered, looking at the broader bioeconomy, if one of the reasons that myths appear to persist so easily and the truth seems to die so readily is that myths seem to be shared via the internet more broadly than the truth, and perhaps it is because the myths are so attractively framed.

I had a lesson in this just this week when I saw 78,000 shares of an old urban myth, first debunked in the 1940s I believe, and yet the truth (which was shared by several respondents) I think received something less than 10 shares. It’s an urban legend whose truth lies in a take of the persistence of energy infrastructure, so I’d like to take it up in some detail today, to understand better why myths persist and what can be done about them, and also why certain choices we make in energy may haunt us for centuries unless we get them right.

Dr. Joerg Storm from Stuttgart, Germany shared the old myth. Here is the charming urban legend that never seems to go away.

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used?

Well, because that’s the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads…the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and [they] used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that same wheel spacing. And…who built those old rutted roads?

Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England ) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since. And what about the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or run the risk of destroying their wagon wheels..Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder ‘What horse’s ass came up with this?’, you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horses’ asses.)

So, that’s the urban legend. It’s funny, fascinating and has an air of authority about it, agree?

The truth has nothing to do with the Romans, wagon ruts, and not much to do with horses (or oxen). Or war chariots, either which, by the way, the Romans did not use except for racing or processions.

The 56-1/2 inch gauge comes from the energy industry, specifically the early 18th century coal industry, a group of colliery owners known as the Grand Allies used it in their great waggonway from the northern English coalfields to the River Tyne. Because the Grand Allies controlled so much coal, and their Causey Arch bridge had that gauge, it became increasingly the “standard gauge” for English waggons, and later all rolling stock, from coal waggons to rail cars. Wider gauge waggons couldn’t be used on the early bridges over the River Severn.

There’s no particular magic to the 56-1/2 inch gauge, for years the Great Western Railway used a 7ft gauge. There was gauge differentiation for competitive reasons — that is, you couldn’t run just anyone’s waggon on anyone’s road, limiting price competition, which is what the Grand Allies were trying to accomplish.

About Myths, urban or otherwise

We mentioned above that the great urban myths are compelling (for example, alligators climbing out of New York sewers, or sightings of Bigfoot). They are presented with an air of authority, and if there’s some humor, that helps.

Why is the truth rarely presented this way? Perhaps because we think that the truth is diminished by showmanship, or that it shouldn’t require it. If spice and pizzazz is out of the question, what weapons are possessed by purveyors of truth? 

1. The best weapon I can think of is celebrity. If you have interesting technology and you want the world to pay attention to it, partner with Sir Richard Branson. 

2. Get out first. As with infrastructure and chess, first mover has a huge advantage.

3. Make sure you have an Air of Authority.

In myth, the Air of Authenticity is the Secret Sauce.  The mythologist starts with facts that many people know and almost anyone can check. Such as, ethanol has lower energy density than gasoline. Or, it takes a lot of water to grow an ear of corn. Early on, the mythologist has aimed to achieve Suspension of Disbelief. Just as creators of film and TV strive for — you probably wouldn’t give much credence to Downton Abbey if Lord Grantham showed up in a Tesla in the first scene. 

In the case of the mythologist, there’s always a pivot from the opening true facts to the Mythy Middle. Here you get plausible assertions, grooming you to accept the faulty conclusion. Above, Dr. Storm asserted, English engineers designed the first US railroads. Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

Plausible, but untrue. In fact, chief engineer for the B&O was Jonathan Knight of Bucks County, PA; his assistant and successor was Benjamin Latrobe Jr. of Philadelphia, assisted by William Howard of Baltimore, Maryland, and Lt. Col. Stephen Long of Hopkinton, New Hampshire. Not a Brit amongst them.

You see how the mythologist works? Later on the mythologist asserts that British rail gauges were inspired by the gauges of British roads – not true. That the dominating factor in deciding gauge was the presence of wagon ruts – not true, and laughable. Then you get the leap to Rome and the chariots, which the Romans didn’t use on Roman roads, and didn’t bring to Britain — a real whopper.

By this time we have arrived at facts which anyone could look up and debunk, in two minutes, probably on Wikipedia, but the mythologist has gone from the Air of Authority to the Roaring Rush of Flying Facts. Having achieved Suspension of Disbelief, the assertions are flying so fast that we are hurtling toward our Fictional Conclusion, just as the dramatist knows that in the third act of a drama, it really doesn’t matter how many errors and goofs are noted on the IMDB trivia pages, the audience has accepted the premise and is eager for the TAA-DAAH and flourish of the ending. 

What can a truth teller learn from this? Use the conventions of drama even if you are telling a non-fiction story. 

1. Establish your Air of Authority. 

2. Achieve Suspension of Disbelief in the Mythy Middle.

3. Hurtle through your second act, with the Roaring Rush of Flying Facts. 

4. A TAA-DAH with some ruffles and flourishes. 

If you can’t tell a lie, just like George Washington, learn something from the (fictional and made up) story of Washington and the Cherry Tree.

“Father, I cannot Tell a Lie” is a myth — Washington never said it. People hang on to the myth because it crystallizes something essential about what George Washington really was — a man of unimpeachable integrity, even though what is perhaps his most famous victory, the Crossing of the Delaware, was a sneak attack. 

The Persistence of Infrastructure

There are lessons to learn about infrastructure, too, from today’s myth. Let’s review. 

1. Cartels. We learn from our story about the Grand Allies. It was their lines that featured what became the basis for standard rail gauge. What were they? Today, we would call it a cartel. An association of coal owners designed to control prices, limit competition, and create economies of scale that dictate how energy was used then, and used now.

2. Roads are free, railways cost. The crowning achievement of the vehicle transport industry has been to establish the idea that roads are a public utility, maintained at public expense. Taxpayers pay for road repair and upgrades, private investors pay to keep the railroads in shape — more or less. Railroads may receive extravagant right of ways from government, but they can’t condemn land, compensate owners, and build at the public expense where they like. Rivers, likewise, are maintained at the public expense. 

What becomes a free public utility will become a national energy platform. Electric utilities work by rate cases where they recover the costs by an adjustment of the rate paid for power. No free market there. Meanwhile, the nation is proposing to build a network of EV charging stations on the public dime. The Digest is not carping about it, we’re for it, but if the nation had built a network of E85 refueling stations on the public dime, we might not have seen $5 gasoline this past summer. 

3. Energy infrastructure switched from renewables, not just energy production. Reading back into the birth of the coal industry, you’ll find that the original rails were made of wood. The cost of rot was high. They tried metal covers, then iron rails. You’ll also discover that that original trains were drawn by horse along the track, no coal-powered locomotives. 

Why were horse-drawn coal waggons important? Back then, the break-even point for moving coal by horse-and-road was about 3 miles.  Moving coal by horse along a rail extended that break-even point to 10 miles or so — that’s why.

4. Energy infrastructure powered the Industrial revolution. Defining image of the early Industrial revolution,. probably the Steam Engine. But it was coal delivery infrastructure that made steam pervasive. Led to the expansion of London, the concentration of capital and labor, economies of scale in manufacturing and liquidity in the City. Still with us today, courtesy of coal. Now, these can be used to finance and support renewables. 

5. Right of way matters. Back in the days of coal, right of way was not obtained under eminent domain. A railroad had to pay “wayfares” which sometimes were cripplingly expensive. That’s the underlying reality even today for a physical commodity like a renewable fuel such as ethanol, transported by a unit train.  That’s not the case for natural gas pipelines or long-distance power transmission lines, As the state of Florida explains, “Transmission lines and pipelines require a linear, continuous right-of-way, preventing the utility from simply purchasing necessary land rights from another, more willing property owner. Utilities have this option under Florida law because power lines and pipelines benefit the community at large. “ 

Nothing wrong with Florida doing this, of course. But you can’t use eminent domain to build an ethanol pipeline or a CO2 pipeline (yet). 

6. Infrastructure persists and shapes a society. Railroad right of ways have been used to support telegraphy, telephone, fiber optic broadband, and more. Our society is built on a decision to grant big right of way to railroads, But it’s more than just railroads. Route 66, where you ket your kicks, that more or less follows the old Overland stage route, which was the old pioneer trail. An Indian trail before that. A bison train before that. 

Infrastructure lasts for a long, long time. Los Angeles started as a dusty hacienda alongside a very good flowing bit of river the Los Angeles River. Because they had water, the railroad came. because people came with the railroad, they eventually discovered oil. I remember a claim that  Los Angeles had around 1915 or so the most extensive electric tram network in the country. When oil was discovered, they tore most of it up. So on came the cars, then the freeways, then the smog and the traffic, until LA couldn’t take it any more, now they are putting in a light rail urban transit system some portions of which costs as much as a billion dollars a mile. That’s why it almost never pays to tear up infrastructure. 

The Bottom Line

What have we learned? Renewables exist atop all our infrastructure and those pipes, and lines define much of what we are going to do, or not do. As Los Angeles found, it can be foolish to tamper with it. 

But we’ve also learned that there’s a layer between the infrastructure and the renewables, and that’s public policy. If the United States declared free E85 fueling infrastructure on the public dime and told EV enthusiasts, “you’re on your own” in everything from EV charging points to electric line right of ways — well, we’d have a different outlook for the 2020s.

In thinking about how public sentiment is shaped as a precursor to policy formation, let’s draw a lesson from the purveyors of urban myths.We can learn from how they are formed and disseminated.

Remember that Air of Authority, the Suspension of Disbelief, the Roaring Rush of Flying Facts, and the TAA-DAH of your Conclusion. Why shouldn’t we use the techniques of myth for things that are so, instead of what ain’t so?

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