One of the state’s largest environmental lobbies is questioning a series of coal studies released by the University of Montana, saying the research is too closely tied to industry and lacks independence because of it.

Over the past few months, the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at UM has released a series of studies covering everything from the rise of Montana’s craft brewing industry to the state impacts of the economic recovery.

But to the dismay of the Montana Environmental Information Center, the bureau also has released several reports highlighting the economic benefits of coal production. The studies have focused on the Otter Creek and Spring Creek mines in eastern Montana.

“These guys keep putting out fundamentally flawed ‘economic studies’ that are just PR pieces for the coal industry,” said Anne Hedges, program director for MEIC. “If they’re going to do these studies, I want to see the other side of the story, but they’re not offering it.”

In its latest study, the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, or BBER, reported that continued production of the Spring Creek mine would boost income for Montana households by more than $58 million while adding $55 million to the state’s tax base by 2018.

Even if the Spring Creek mine weren’t expanded but continued to operate as is, the study found, it would create 1,421 permanent jobs over the next five years. Those jobs would benefit a range of industries and occupations across the state.

The study did not look at the environmental or social impacts of coal production.

“The important thing about our work, I believe, is that we’re not asking what’s good or bad about coal,” said BBER research director Patrick Barkey. “We’re simply asking the ‘what if’ question. This is a view from 30,000 feet. It’s not an attempt to give the whole scorecard.”

***

Barkey said the Montana Contractors Association approached BBER and funded the Otter Creek coal study. The Montana Chamber of Commerce funded the Spring Creek coal study.

The cost of the studies ranged from $30,000 to $50,000 to complete, Barkey said.

“In that, there are budgets for indirect costs, charges for overhead, and the university has a rate for all that,” Barkey said. “The university’s resources were used and the university was compensated (for the study).”

MEIC disagrees with the results of the coal studies, saying BBER has “never seen a downside” to natural resource development. MEIC is writing a rebuttal of the findings and is questioning whether BBER should accept industry money to conduct industry research.

Hedges called it a potential conflict of interest, suggesting that UM has a duty to represent both sides of the issue when researching coal – exploring the environmental costs alongside the economic benefits.

Accepting money from an interested party that could benefit from the research, such as the Chamber of Commerce, Hedges added, brings into question the fairness of the findings, especially when the Chamber plans to share them with the Montana Legislature.

“The Bureau of Business and Economic Research isn’t an independent, unbiased entity doing research on behalf of the university,” said Hedges. “I want to see a balanced approach from our universities. Their (coal) reports are all pro-industry and pro-extraction.”

Montana Chamber of Commerce President Webb Brown said the organization sought out BBER for the study because it trusts the university’s work. He also believes the Montana public generally supports development of the state’s coal resources.

Brown added that BBER’s research on the Spring Creek coal mine was something the Montana Chamber of Commerce will take to the Legislature as it lobbies for future development of the state’s resources.

“Our purpose is to understand the possible effects for Montana’s economy,” said Brown. “We’ve heard figures thrown around by the companies, but we wanted hard data. There are significant impacts we could see here, and we want to take the findings to the public as a whole.”

***

Barkey said BBER doesn’t directly accept funding for its studies, whether they’re paid for by the Montana Chamber of Commerce or the craft brewing industry. Rather, he said, it’s the university that’s paid for the work.

He also disagreed with MEIC’s criticism that the study overlooked the social and environmental impacts of coal development. He said research on any far-reaching subject, such as coal and the economy, must first prioritize the economic issues before taking an objective view of the impacts.

“We do business research in the School of Business,” Barkey said. “Our goal is to do things as transparently as possible. But the truth is, research does cost money, and the university should be compensated for its work.”

Judy Fredenberg, director of UM’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, said research conducted by the university is reimbursed on a cost basis. She said the arrangement is the same at other research institutions across the country, where the university serves as the contractual entity, not the department doing the work.

“Money doesn’t go directly to BBER,” Fredenberg said. “Contracts are written to the university, which serves as the contractual entity.”

Fredenberg’s office of roughly 15 employees submits between 600 and 700 research proposals each year. In fiscal year 2012, figures show that the office handled roughly $61 million in research funding, marking a 3.6 percent decrease from FY11.

When a research agreement is reached, Fredenberg said, it arrives at her office where it’s then negotiated. She said her office serves as the middleman, protecting university researchers from accusations of impropriety.

“What we do is not unique,” she said. “It’s not like we’re making money on these activities. Almost all of it is cost-sponsored reimbursement.”

***

The future of coal in Montana looms large in politics and energy circles, and it has become a source of social debate. Montana has much larger coal deposits than does Wyoming, though Wyoming outpaces Montana in production.

But with Asian markets expected to consume roughly 80 quadrillion BTUs of coal by 2020, according to BBER, the potential economic boon to Montana has some pushing for expanded production. It also has environmentalists on edge.

While BBER’s studies on coal have noted the potential increase in state tax revenues with continued development and extraction, Hedges said the bureau’s research has failed to address the environmental costs surrounding extraction.

MEIC has taken particular issue with the bureau’s Otter Creek study, saying it failed to explore the impacts mining could have on neighboring agricultural activities. Hedges said the organization will soon release a rebuttal to BBER’s research.

“We know the surrounding agricultural operations will absolutely be impacted,” Hedges said. “The valley is an alluvial valley and it’s been in agricultural production for generations. But they (BBER) don’t talk about that in their research.”

Barkey said he welcomes MEIC’s scrutiny and says BBER stands by its research and its overall mission to provide economic data to sponsors who ask for it.

“What the research does, it’s a hypothetical issue of how the economy should react to a sizable investment, and the investment of a raw resource (coal) down the value chain,” he said.

“There are always additional benefits and costs that could be added to these studies. But we have to prioritize, by order of magnitude, what’s most important to the Montana economy, and I think we do a balanced job.”

***

Bob Seidenschwarz, an investment adviser with SG Long in Missoula and president of the Montana World Affairs Council, said both sides of the coal debate have valid arguments. He’s considered all angles for many years.

“Coal production in Montana isn’t unique to Montana,” he said. “It’s a global issue. The coal produced here, for the most part, is going to China. If you’re going to have the discussion, you need to consider who the end user is, and what their current, intermediate and long-term needs are.”

Whether Montana coal is mined and delivered or not, Seidenschwarz said, coal likely will remain a primary source of electrical generation in Asia for years to come. The environmental impacts, along with the economic necessities, must both be weighed, he said.

It’s a discussion that must take place on a global scale.

“That’s the catch-22 we face,” he said. “Before we start saying you can’t do this or you should do this, let’s talk about what this global economy faces over the next 10 to 20 years, as well as our domestic economy. It’s about a lifestyle issue as well.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at (406-523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

(15) comments

Gadfly
Gadfly

Do we really need research to tell us that some make money off of coal? Or oil? or do predators kill prey? Or rain makes us wet?

Gadfly
Gadfly

What the "environmental whackos" want is balanced reporting which is in the best interests of all, not research funded by entities paying for biased reporting which is in the interests of coal industry irregardless of impact. Let them hire non-university researchers, research that should be beyond reproach, which this is clearly not. Better yet keep it in-house. So, far, with current technology, there is no such thing as non-dirty coal: A few make a buck, we all suffer.

speedbow20
speedbow20

Roger Hewitt, of Great Falls, Licensed clinical counselor, dont BS anyone, what you want is for people to only follow what you have to say, to do what you believe in. All unbiased and stuff, professional and all.

Gonzilla
Gonzilla

Once those funding resource extraction realize their point of diminishing returns is close at hand, maybe they will have more interest in real science and worthwhile data analysis?

As a graduate from Montana Tech (of the UM) with a degree in mechanical engineering, I feel obligated to point out this is merely one small example of a much larger and serious problem concerning the 'objectivity' of our university systems. Our colleges appear focused on two main goals: producing employed graduates and making themselves a lot of money.

It's no surprise the school of business has no interest in the environmental side of this debate, because these 'educators' focus only on the immediate "bottom line." Not the impact on our air, water, health, tourism dollars, or the sustainability of these coal mines. Undoubtedly the miners of the "richest hill on earth" were promised "permanent" jobs and a safe place to raise their kids, but that's definitely not what they ended up with in Butte. As an engineer who graduated in 2002, I was trained to perform whatever task my employer asked; ignore their motives for environmental abuse and not do anything to jeopardize their operation. THAT WAS IN MY ONE COURSE ON ETHICS!!!

This state is already covered with Superfund sites waiting for the money to clean up toxic messes left by previous irresponsible industries. What makes anybody think people hell-bent on tearing down our mountains and shipping coal to Asia have any notion of the word "responsibility"? Or, better still, interest in funding an "objective" study on the impacts of mining coal in Montana?

Kudos to the University of Montana, for blatantly exposing a process that's so corrupt your only excuse is that everybody else is doing it! Hopefully, this irony will not be lost on our state lawmakers; as some of them reminisce about getting to become famous movie stars in the documentary shot during the last session, "Code of the West". Which is scheduled to be released with an update soon, to include more of the carnage and blatant injustices done to Montanans brave enough to provide safe, life-giving medicine in the form of a sustainable industry that had been growing our economy responsibly with great speed...

This ought to be an entertaining legislative session, with even the White House now admitting we need to have a serious conversation about marijuana. As we find a way off the fiscal cliff, that can only truly come in the form of sustainable industries (particularly hemp, which actually can ween us off petroleum and fracking in the not-so-distant future.)

Jon_w
Jon_w

The MEIC is nothing but a radical goup who wants to eliminate poor working people. As with any enviromental goup they want nothing to benefit working people. We have the coal, we need t ouse it and to do that one must dig. We need the jobs, yet the MRIC is unwilling to use its vast funds to create high paying clean energy jobs across Montana. And until these enviromental groups decided to put their money where their mouths are, they should find a way to help use the resources we have in this state to create jobv. They also need to be willing to work with industry and find ways to responsibly use our natural resources of coal, oil and gas along with logging. MEIC is nothing but s group of narrow minded people whgo dopnt give a darn about blue collar working people, because they have no idea what honest hard work is.

Mad Dog Mike
Mad Dog Mike

great comment....and it is the truth

Kahlotus
Kahlotus

If we need to use coal so badly, why are we exporting so much of it to China?

jr2jr2
jr2jr2

Everyone I know in MT wants a clean environment, and it is cleaner now in the US than it has been in decades. What most of these same people don't want, is the EXTREME ENVIRO whackos trying to shut down all coal, gas, oil and forest prioduction in this state. We have tremendous resources in this state that can be produced in an environmentally safe way. These extrems enviros need to turn their attention to China, India, etc where the REAL environmental damage is taking place and leave us the hell alone here in MT !!!!!!!

Mad Dog Mike
Mad Dog Mike

no as a Republican....I am for dirty air, water, homeless, starving folks...ahhh..wait..that is what these groups want..total poverty, so mother earth is clean....read Paul Erhlich sometime and you will understand...good comment

Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler

The Bureau of Business and Economic Research at UM serves business interests....period. That's true of all the logging studies they have done and it's certainly true of BBER's coal studies. The UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research is a cheerleader for business pure and simply. For fun sometime, go back and look at all their logging studies over the years and see all the lofty predictions they got wrong, for example. I'm sure the same can be said of these coal studies.

Heck, UM's BBER even admits these coal studies are funded by Chamber of Commerce and the Montana Contractors Association. The executive director of the MT Contractors Association is Cary Hegreberg, who used to be the state's top logging lobbyists with the Montana Wood Productions Association.

Remember when 2000 logging supporters and ATV riders showed up at UM in the summer of 2000 to protest the Roadless Rule, and then marched with a coffin over to the Double Tree Hotel, nearly knocking over the doors and disrupting the official Roadless Rule public meeting and shouting down other commenters with shouts of "This is Bull Sh#t" and "what do you wipe your a@# with?" Yep, that was Mr. Hegreberg's proud handiwork.

I leave it for others to decide if it's OK for the public University of Montana to accept what's close to $100,000 from the Chamber of Commerce and the MT Contractors Association to simply turn around and produce "studies" that are in lock-step agreement with the agenda of these business interests. Sure, Patrick Barkey, this is the "view from 30,000 feet." More like it's the view from $100,000 into the pocket of Mr. Barkey's Bureau of Business and Economic Research outfit. Mr. Barkey knows not to bite the hand that feeds him.

Perhaps there isn't anything really wrong with this, as long as we all realize that UM's BBER exists to serve business and promote the business agenda, and not pretend otherwise.

sonofbrutalbob
sonofbrutalbob

Of course they only studied the economic impact. That is what a business and economic study looks at. Do environmentalist look at the economic and business impact in their studies?

Bandit218
Bandit218

Maybe they should get the school of nursing to research the environmental effects side of things. From the sounds of it there wouldn't be much research involved because the researchers would be handed the answer they wanted.

COMMON SENSE
COMMON SENSE

So...just because a university study of a coal mine isn't environmentally or ecologically damaging enough to the mining operation, IT MUST BE WRONG, THE UNIVERSITY IS BIASED! At least according the eco-whackoffs. Don't forget to turn and face the hole in the ozone layer when you kneel to pray to AL-Gorejazeera lest he smite you & sell your soul to a Saudi oil cartel.

Mad Dog Mike
Mad Dog Mike

BRAVO

doggydo
doggydo

Here come the enviro-nazis again, when are they going to learn they have no support.

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