HELENA – President Barack Obama’s goal of limiting carbon dioxide emissions has put Democratic leaders in energy-producing states such as Montana in a bind, caught between bellicose Republican statements of a “war on coal” and emboldened environmentalists who are calling for swift action.
That has forced leaders such as Gov. Steve Bullock into something of a hedge, telling the public to wait for the details of Obama’s plan while assuring them that energy production will remain a major economic driver and a source of employment.
“We make and export energy. That is part of what we do,” Bullock said Monday. “I think that even the administration recognizes that we just don’t throw the switch, and we really aren’t in an either/or situation.”
Obama’s plan to fight climate change, announced last week, would include executive action to place limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, while expanding development of renewable energy.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the president’s energy policy will still embrace traditional energy sources such as coal and oil.
Republican leaders in Montana are unconvinced. They predicted dire consequences for the state, calling the plan a war on energy and a job killer.
“This is a war on Montana energy, Montana families and small businesses and Montana jobs, and I will remain steadfast in the fight to stop the President’s job-killing agenda,” U.S. Rep. Steve Daines said in a statement.
Another Republican, Attorney General Tim Fox, warned the plan will blow a hole in the state’s budget.
“In attempting to rule by decree and legislate by regulation, President Obama has failed to take a balanced approach to energy policy and has failed to recognize the diverse interests and economies of 50 states,” Fox said.
Coal has a huge role in Montana in development and power generation. As of 2011, the state had 10 coal generators, including four at the massive 2,100-megawatt Colstrip electricity plant in eastern Montana.
New and expanded coal mines have been proposed in southeastern Montana by companies looking to tap into demand in Asia, and a portion of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada would run through Montana.
But while Republican leaders say Obama’s climate change plan jeopardizes all that, others say the president’s announcement means greater opportunities for the state to develop its renewable resources.
The state and nation are facing disaster from climate change, from degraded air quality to more wildfires to calamity for drought-stricken farmers, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Pat Williams said.
The transition to renewable energy sources must be speeded up, and Montana is well-positioned to take a leading role, he said in a conference call with reporters last week.
“There’s been enough hot air on this topic to create plenty of wind power for future turbines. The problem is we haven’t put up the turbines, or put up the (solar) panels or built the hydroelectric facilities,” he said.
Montana’s wind energy potential has only begun to be tapped, and has great potential for creating jobs and new cash through investments and landowner lease payments, said Kyla Maki of the Montana Environmental Information Center.
She dismissed the opposition to the president’s climate change plan, saying the president’s executive actions don’t really need buy-in from a reluctant Republican-led state Legislature.
“It would be great if the Legislature gets on board. But I don’t think we need legislative action to achieve these goals,” Maki said.
In this year’s session, GOP leaders stymied Bullock’s attempt to expand the Medicaid rolls as part of the Affordable Care Act. The governor said it is too soon to tell if lawmakers will get involved in the climate change initiative.
“I think it is a little premature to kind of be guessing how this will unfold,” Bullock said. “On the greater level, I think everybody agrees that having a national or international energy policy makes sense because no individual state can do this.”