Montana's "Clean-Coal" Governor's Climate Change Blunder

Wednesday, 30 December 2009 19:36 By Joshua Frank, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

Montana
(Image: Troy Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Tracy Russo, ambimb, luiznavarro)

It was a good year for opponents of coal, the most plentiful and dangerous of the world's fossil fuels. No new coal plants broke ground in the US, and a total of 26 were defeated or abandoned by the coal industry in 2009.

As coal-fired power plants are the number one source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the country, climate change activists have placed shutting down the industry atop their to-do list.

"2009 has been a remarkable year in our fight for clean energy," said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "There is a shift going on across America as companies realign away from old dirty practices involving coal and toward cleaner energy options, including wind, solar and becoming more efficient."

While the Sierra Club may be basking in exultation, coal opponents in Montana aren't quite as happy with the year's outcome in their state.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and other members of the State Land Board, all Democrats, voted 4 to 1 on December 21 to open up Otter Creek, an approximately 10,000-acre checkerboard of public lands, to coal development in Montana's region of the Powder River Basin. An estimated 572 million tons in all will be auctioned off to coal companies for 25 cents a ton, with a small percentage of the money to be funneled to public schools.

"The main beneficiaries of leasing Otter Creek coal won't be coal miners or schools or the Northern Cheyenne or the residents of Powder River County," wrote local residents Bill and Judy Musgrave in the Billings Gazette leading up to the vote. "It will be coal speculators and the proposed Tongue River Railroad."

As of 2006, an estimated 74.6 billion tons of coal reserves existed in Montana, which is the largest recoverable coal reserves of any state in the country. In fact, nearly 7.5 percent of the world's entire coal reserves reside in the Big Sky state.

Denise Juneau, Montana's superintendent of public instruction was the only Land Board member that didn't take the bait that the money would be going to fund the schools she oversees. On the contrary, she argued, the land would benefit the public more if it were left untouched.

"We could sell every parcel of state land and log every tree on state lands, but we don't," said Juneau. "We don't because we want to sustain Montana's lands for future beneficial use ... Of course there is [monetary] value in mining the coal. But there is also value in keeping Montana 'Montana.'"

In November Great Northern Properties leased its rights to Arch Coal Inc. to mine 9,600 acres of land that is interspersed with the State's Otter Creek parcels. The opening of these private reserves was a power play that forced the Land Board to consider opening its own lands in the area.

In all, a total of 1.3 billion tons of coal will be opened for development, which equates to about 3,834 pounds of CO2 per ton of coal, or a total of 2.6 billion tons of CO2 if all coal is burned to produce electricity - 78 times the state's annual output of CO2.

"We are disappointed they decided to stay with old, dirty energy instead of clean, sustainable energy of the future, but this isn't over," Jeanie Alderson, a Birney, Montana, rancher and co-chair of Northern Plains Resource Council's Tongue River Railroad Task Force, told Truthout in regard to the Otter Creek deal. "We still maintain the entire process is flawed. There has been no overarching public process that includes a discussion of the environmental, economic, and social aspects and costs associated with leasing this coal."

However, it is difficult to confront the real, burgeoning threat of climate change when Montana's own leading Democrat, Governor Schweitzer, believes that coal can be clean.

Dubbed the "Coal Cowboy" by CBS's "60 Minutes," Schweitzer has been everything but critical of the industry and is a vocal proponent of "coal-to-liquid" technology. While using coal to make fuel may reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, critics are unconvinced that coal-to-liquids could ever combat global warming.

"What they're proposing is simply not allowable if we want to avoid the perils of unconstrained anthropogenic climate change," said Pushker Karecha of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "The bottom line is that there's one fatal flaw in their proposed [coal-to-liquids] process from a climate protection standpoint. It would allow liquid fuel CO2 emissions to continue increasing indefinitely."

Schweitzer hasn't been listening and has instead proposed a $15 billion coal-to-liquids venture in southeastern Montana. The process, like the coal development in Otter Creek, will require strip mining to bring the coal to the surface and then be burned to generate electricity for the coal-to-liquids refinery, which would in turn be used to run diesel engines for the intense strip mining project. It's an endless cycle of CO2 emissions, which some environmentalists have called "Gov. Schweitzer's Perpetual Pollution Machine."

Schweitzer has made quite a name for himself in pro-coal energy circles, traveling around the country promoting "clean-coal" technology in speeches and presentations. The Montana governor has even appeared on several national television shows, even landing a prime-time spot at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 to promote his coal-intensive energy vision.

Many environmentalists are concerned that what President Bush was for oil, Governor Schweitzer could be for coal if his trajectory in the Democratic Party continues.

Speaking in Bismark, North Dakota, at a recent energy seminar, Schweitzer proclaimed that "clean-coal" technology would help generate billions in revenue for both Montana and North Dakota, not to mention the corporations that would be doing the digging.

"With the resurgence of the Democratic Party in the West, many Democrats are reluctant to openly criticize their leaders," wrote Montanan Greg Gordon in High Country News last September about Schweitzer's backward energy policies. "Unity, however, does not mean blind acceptance of misguided policies that will lead to economic and environmental disaster."

Indeed, Schweitzer has worked hard to promote the coal industry in Montana, even helping to broker William Buffet's purchasing of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railway, which serves as the main transportation means for coal mined in Montana. He's also lauded the reopening of the Signal Hill mine near Broadview, Montana, which will become one of the largest in the state.

"This is a mine that will add 25 percent to the over all coal mining that we do in Montana," stated Schweitzer at the mine's reopening.

A portion of the coal mined in Montana will be shipped over to the exploding Asian markets that are increasingly burning coal to produce energy, but are lower in supplies than the US.

For the climate change movement to succeed in 2010, it seems vital that their fight ought to make its way to Montana's capital in Helena to confront Governor Schweitzer and his pro-coal industry posturing. Even if all new coal plants in the US are abandoned or halted next year, it will mean little if our nation's coal deposits continue to be exploited and incinerated overseas.

"What we have now is 387 parts [CO2] per million [in our atmosphere]. But we're going to have to bring that down to 350 parts per million or less," leading climate scientist James Hansen recently warned on Democracy Now! "And that's still possible, provided we phase out [global] coal emissions over the next few decades."

Joshua Frank

Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland (AK Press, 2008). Frank is also the co-author with St. Clair of the forthcoming Green Scare: The New War on Environmentalism (Haymarket Books, 2010)

Last modified on Sunday, 03 January 2010 20:34