Yesterday, famed American investor Warren Buffett announced that his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, would purchase the remaining shares of Burlington North Sante Fe railroad that it did not already hold. The $44 billion acquisition is the largest in Berkshire’s history, and pundits have been opining on what it says about Buffett’s forecasts for the U.S. economy (not for nothing is he called the “Oracle of Omaha”).
The dominant narrative is that by purchasing a railroad, Buffett has made a bet on a U.S. economic recovery. That is to say, the demand for the cross-country shipment of raw and finished materials would increase, and Buffett’s investment would prosper.
But the story has an environmental component, too. Buffett himself said that in terms of relative energy efficiency, rail transport is done “in an extraordinarily environmentally friendly way.” Buffett posited that on average in the United States, one gallon of fuel can move a ton of goods 470 miles over rail (or 435 miles, either way); compare to trucking, which gets anywhere between 130 to 186 ton-miles/gallon, depending on who you ask. This is quite a large difference in any case, and considering that domestic freight transport emissions have increased 58% since 1990 and alone exceed the total GHG emissions of Canada, they will likely be a target of future U.S. climate change legislation. In essence, the narrative goes, Buffett thinks that the future of transport in the U.S. will be trains out of environmentally-induced economic necessity.
Meanwhile, skeptics have found another reading. Clean Air Watch argues that because a big chunk of BNSF’s business is hauling coal, Buffett is actually making a bet that U.S. energy policy will continue to promote coal usage in the long term. After this contention was picked up by StreetsBlog, one of that site’s commenters countered this suggestion by noting that much of the coal BNSF transports is for export.
This last point highlights the fallacy of looking to Buffett’s decision, or the actions of any one institutional player, as a sign of the environmental zeitgeist. Buffett probably figures that no matter what happens, BNSF will make him money, and he is probably right. If a U.S. energy policy encourages more efficient transportation, railway shipping will increase. If coal production is discouraged, BNSF will haul solar cells and wind turbine components. Businesspeople respond to a variety of factors and incentives in making their decisions; the environment is merely one component, regardless of how much lip service it is paid in press releases. Buffett may care about the environment, quite genuinely, but he would not likely base a major business decision solely on that bias.
Photo: a BNSF train hauling coal in the Powder River Basin, ahockley/flickr