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Montana's U.S. House candidates' energy plans reveal contrasts

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061514 Montana U.S.  House Congressional Debate

Montana U.S. House candidates John Lewis, Ryan Zinke and Mike Fellows, from left, answer questions in a debate at Montana Tech in Butte in June. 

BILLINGS– Montana’s

U.S. House candidates claim to offer “all-of-the-above” solutions to the nation’s energy problems – a familiar mantra among politicians keen to give equal attention to fossil fuels and renewables such as wind and solar.

Yet stark differences in the details of their proposals reveal a wide divide. Republican Ryan Zinke is a staunch fossil fuels advocate who questions humanity’s role in climate change. Democrat John Lewis touts the potential for renewables that he says could transform the state’s energy sector over the long term, and says the effects of climate change are evident.

The candidates’ dueling visions could play a significant role in November as voters in energy-rich Montana seek distinctions in the contest for the state’s sole House seat, left open when first-term Republican Rep. Steve Daines decided to run for U.S. Senate. Oil and gas are in abundance in eastern Montana, which includes part of the booming Bakken oil region and some of the largest coal reserves in the world.

Zinke said those fuels offer the best hope for the U.S. to break its reliance on foreign sources. His plan seeks to streamline permitting processes to speed up oil and gas drilling on lands managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

“The opportunity for energy independence in the short term remains primarily with fossil fuels, primarily driven by the shale play,” he said, referring to the shale oil found in the Bakken.

Lewis puts his emphasis on nontraditional energy sources including wind, hydro and solar power and plant-based fuels such as diesel derived from the crop camelina, which is a member of the mustard family.

The longtime aide to former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said he also supports fossil fuels, although the energy plan Lewis unveiled last month largely skipped over oil and natural gas. Those industries are doing well on their own, Lewis said.

While Zinke says he’s against subsidies for wind energy, Lewis wants to revive a wind power production tax credit that expired at the end of 2013.

“We invest heavily in oil, gas, coal as it is with tax credits and tax breaks,” Lewis said. “We invest in those resources, why wouldn’t we invest in the future”

On climate change, Lewis said Montanans can see its effects in drought and wildfires.

But Zinke has his doubts about humanity’s role in climate change; he says rising ocean temperatures have a greater influence.

“The evidence strongly suggests that humans have had an influence on higher CO2,” Zinke said. “However, the evidence is equally as strong that there are other factors, such as rising ocean temperatures, that have a greater influence.”

That claim was disputed by a University of Montana professor and member of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Regents Professor Steve Running said Zinke’s characterization “doesn’t square with the facts at all.”

“We can say quite confidently that 90 to 95 percent of this carbon trend is human induced,” Running said. “A tiny fraction is natural variability. It’s the additions that humans are making, to what was close to a balanced system before.”

While Lewis and Zinke tout “all-of-the-above,” their Libertarian opponent Mike Fellows wants government to take more of an “opt-out” approach.

He said the market should work on energy development without subsidies.

“We’ve subsidized too many projects over the years that have been fruitless,” he said, mentioning the corn ethanol mandate as an example.

He’s against the TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL oil pipeline, which he says will take private property from landowners. Both Lewis and Zinke want the pipeline approved.

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