Montana’s top Democratic officeholders are firmly stuck on the horns of a dilemma. Namely, they have been cheerleading “drill, baby, drill” for Bakken oil and gas and “dig, baby, dig” for as much coal as possible. Toss in the unflagging support for the Keystone XL pipeline from Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and former Governor Brian Schweitzer, and it’s pretty hard not to conclude that Montana’s Democrats seem to have universally adopted Sarah Palin’s “all of the above” energy policy.
Unfortunately, that puts them fully at odds not only with President Barack Obama’s newly announced initiative to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants, but with many of their core constituents who very much want to see Democrats lead the nation away from polluting fossil fuels.
The problem Montana’s Democrats are now facing can be laid at the feet of Schweitzer, who was infamously dubbed the “Coal Cowboy” by national media for his over-the-top promotion of coal during his two terms in office. It’s easy to remember Schweitzer’s big Montana State University energy conference in which he hauled in so-called “experts” from around the world primarily to promote his scheme of turning Montana coal into liquid fuel.
If the term “snake oil” comes to mind when recalling his hucksterism while waving around his tiny vials of coal-derived oil, it’s no surprise. PT Barnum had nothing on Schweitzer as he endlessly hawked his idea and promised developments that would make Montana the world leader in coal-to-liquids production.
Of course, all that happened almost a decade ago now and guess what? There’s still not a single coal-to-liquids operation under our Big Sky and it’s not likely any will be forthcoming soon. Apparently the technology Schweitzer assured us was ready for roll out at commercial scale wasn’t exactly as he portrayed it.
But Brian being Brian, if you didn’t get on his coal bus – especially if you were a Democrat – you could expect to get thrown under it, which is exactly what happened to those who questioned or opposed Schweitzer’s big plans for coal.
The disconnect between his vision and reality must have hit Schweitzer sometime in his second term, when he realized coal-to-liquids wasn’t going to happen. So, the snake oil vials got put back in the desk drawer and Schweitzer turned to “carbon capture” as his next effort to promote the fictional entity known as “clean coal.” All we had to do, according to Schweitzer, was capture the emissions from coal plants and pump them underground into the vast geologic formations he assured us were perfect for that purpose.
Only that didn’t happen either. But that didn’t stop or even slightly detour Schweitzer’s plans for hauling millions of tons of coal annually from the undeveloped Otter Creek tracts. Schweitzer’s fellow Land Board members, including then-Attorney General, now Governor Steve Bullock, pretty much ignored the protests, acted like the stark evidence of climate change’s mounting impacts on our forests, farms and rivers didn’t exist, and went along with Schweitzer’s plan to lease the Otter Creek Tracts to Arch Coal.
As we now know, all the talk about “clean coal” is pretty much over with. Otter Creek’s coal, if it’s ever fully developed, won’t be turned to liquid fuel and won’t be burned in carbon capture facilities. Nope, it’s slated to go to China and other Asian nations where it will be burned in thermal generation plants that spew old-fashioned pollutants by the millions of tons.
And that’s the core of the dilemma. Since there’s barely a discernible difference between Montana’s Democrat and Republican “all of the above” energy policies, how do the Democrats here square their stance with Obama when it comes to tackling the enormous challenges of climate change?
The magnitude of the issue facing Montana Democrats was evident when Bullock reacted to Obama’s pledge to have the Environmental Protection Agency draft more stringent rules for power plant emissions. “We’re an energy state. We make and export energy. That is part of what we do,” Bullock told reporters, adding that he would wait to “see the details” of Obama’s plan.
Global warming’s increasingly disastrous impacts are not waiting, however. Although late in the game, Obama has taken his first steps in the right direction. Montana’s Democrats would do well to dump the Schweitzer-Palin energy platform, face the fact that “clean coal” is a huckster’s myth, and lead the state forward toward a coal-free energy policy that serves the long-term needs of Montana, not China.
George Ochenski writes a weekly column for the Missoulian’s Monday Opinion page. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.