Martin Kidston

One month ago, the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana hosted an energy conference that attracted representatives from five nations and experts in a number of fields, from natural resources to climate change.

In the weeks heading into the Asia-Montana Energy Summit, critics emerged from both sides.

Some feared the conference would pander to environmental groups, while others said it would serve as a platform from which fossil-fuel proponents could spread a corporate message.

Neither fears turned out to be true.

Four weeks removed from the conference, Robert Seidenschwarz, chairman of the Montana World Affairs Council – which played a role in arranging the summit – shared his takeaway from the two-day event.

First and foremost, he said, the conference revealed that the world’s demand and use of energy has direct implications for Montana.

We were reminded of that just last week when the Surface Transportation Board denied the Missoula City Council’s request for a public hearing regarding the proposed Otter Creek Mine and Tongue River Railroad in southwest Montana.

If approved, coal from the region likely will be transported through Missoula and other cities before landing at Pacific Northwest ports. From there, it will move by ship to countries lining the Pacific Rim, including China, Korea and Japan, all of which attended the recent summit.

“Montana has a role both domestically and internationally in providing the raw materials (coal), and finding new and innovate ways of using alternative technologies,” Seidenschwarz said. “The Montana University System has a role to play in this arena.”

As Seidenschwarz sees it, UM and other Montana colleges must take the lead in researching breakthrough technologies and educating students to tackle tomorrow’s energy challenges. After all, it’s our oil, gas, ore and environment at stake.

Industry leaders from both the traditional and alternative energy sectors must play a role in guiding this future, Seidenschwarz added. We’ve seen the success of such partnerships in recent years, where IBM and Symantec teamed up with UM to help bolster the university’s big data and cyber security programs.

“The outreach to our secondary school students was also a critical component to the conference,” Seidenschwarz added. “Balanced and accurate information for critical thinking – and revealing the complexity of these issues – will continue to be a major part of future conference initiatives.”

The issues surrounding energy are complex and far reaching, and the conference proved just how much this is true. At home, Montana jobs are on the line, along with taxes needed to grow the state’s budget, which provides essential services to all of us.

In parts of Asia, the energy is needed to meet the basic needs of the citizenry. China has become the world’s largest energy consumer, marking what the International Energy Agency described as “a new age in the history of energy."

The geopolitical implications can’t be overlooked, nor can the cultural differences that stand between East and West. Seidenschwarz said many panelists “had their eyes opened” to the cultural divide that influences our perspectives on energy, along with the security issues that result.

“What was not very well understood, but remains critical, is how the capital markets function in this arena,” Seidenschwarz said. “The scale of the required investment in infrastructure to meet growing populations, as well as rebuilding aging infrastructure, is expected to be in the trillions of dollars over the next several decades, just to keep pace with current needs. Where will this capital come from?”

And of course, the environmental impacts that result from the world’s hunger for energy remain the elephant in the room. Worries of coal dust have citizens concerned up and down the railroad, including those in Missoula, and Bellingham and Vancouver, Washington.

More importantly, climate change stands as the biggest concern of all, and rightly so. Burning the 1.5 billion tons of coal estimated to lie at Otter Creek could unleash 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that has global implications, even if the coal is consumed in China.

“No better example was provided than by our guests from China, who described the pollution that China struggles with,” Seidenschwarz said.

But in the true dichotomy of the challenge, he added, “They also described the harsh economic reality of growing an economy that needs to add over a million new jobs a month. Perspective is a principle that we struggle with living in a land of plenty.”

If nothing else, information gleaned from the summit provides something to think about as our state’s energy future unfolds to meet the world’s demands, and brings all the pros and cons with it.

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