January 2020 Vol. 75 No. 1

Editor's Log

Interesting Times

It seems like the more things change for underground infrastructure markets, the more things stay the same. That’s why trying to get a handle on our industry outlook for 2020 remains a challenge.

For the most part, market forecasts seem sound. But we live in times of discontent, extremism, nationalism vs. globalism, distrust and evolving morals. What will happen next is anybody’s guess. Further, how that impacts our approach to infrastructure is also a gray area. The current political climate is vicious, to say the least – and not just in the U.S. Yet, there still emerges some coherence of purpose in support for infrastructure.

Easily the most combustible area of infrastructure is oil and gas transmission pipelines. Environmental extremists, along with political zealots seeking to ride the green wave, attack carbon fuel in ways we never dreamed of until recently. An all-out war on oil and gas pipelines effectively delayed/slowed/antagonized several major, legitimate and regulatory-approved projects in 2019.

In my column last month, I wrote on how the governor of New York has banned new pipelines from his state, yet blasted the energy company when it didn’t have enough capacity to supply additional households. Hopefully those pipeline projects will survive and move forward over the next year or two – they are very much needed.

Gas itself is under fire, even in the distribution market. But the irony is that gas holds our best environmental solution for the next 50 years. Natural gas is a relatively clean fuel, plentiful and very economical. Until something better is developed that can replace gas as a primary fuel source for power and heating – and at an affordable rate – the world needs to accept the benefits of natural gas and quit fighting, just for the sake of misdirected visions of a perfect environment.

And for goodness sake, lay off the cattle – they can’t help their methane emissions. Yet, cattle producers have recently been criticized as major polluters. There’s extreme, and then there is absurd.

The increased use of gas, in lieu of other dirty energy sources such as coal, is the answer to our immediate environmental needs. As research continues and constantly becomes more efficient and all-encompassing, another worldwide fuel or combination of resources may be developed. Until then, gas is the answer as the fuel-source bridge to the future.

Even with its political struggles, oil and gas transmission pipeline work was solid in 2019, and projections for a similar year in 2020 are consistent. But it’s the November election that concerns most in the energy business. Depending on who finally emerges as the Democratic candidate, that person, if the victor in the presidential election, could be a major bane to oil and gas – even more so than former President Obama – and would negatively impact the continued plans for pipeline construction.

Other infrastructure sectors have much more promising prospects for 2020. Telecommunications was already humming along strongly before 5G launched. That wrinkle has added another layer of work, keeping telecom contractors busy at least for the next few years.

The electric distribution grid continues to go underground, while improving its reliability. Although still a challenge to go underground cost effectively, electric transmission has made great strides in that arena, and most experts predict it’s just a matter of time before undergrounding electric transmission becomes routine.

The plight of our sewer and water infrastructure has been well-chronicled – huge sectors are in horrible shape. As modern technology develops an increasingly large suite of solutions, the major inhibitor remains finances. That has been the issue for decades and will remain the principal restraint to successfully replacing our failing infrastructure for decades to come.

Potable water system expansion and rehabilitation were already picking up speed long before Flint, Mich., had its lead pipe crisis. That has only served to fuel the public attention to water systems and the demand for repairs.

The need and strong demand for sewer, water and stormwater expansion, replacement and rehabilitation is blatantly apparent. Where the money will come from, however, is an elusive quest. Still, 2020 should hold firm in those markets, perhaps even picking up steam if attention to the plight of underground infrastructure becomes a major campaign issue. Both parties provide ample lip service to supporting infrastructure. As long as whoever is elected doesn’t thwart economic growth, infrastructure could slowly begin to experience increased funding.

The problem is that some of the screwball concepts being bandied about by candidates is downright scary, when considering the costs. We don’t have enough funding for our current needs, let alone the wild rhetoric that is being eschewed.

So, as we roll into a new year and new decade, here’s hoping we can find our path to underground infrastructure solutions with greater ease, sense of purpose and infinitely improved cooperation by all involved.

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