I was walking home on one of the cold days last week, kicking through the crispy brown leaves and inundated by the smells of autumn, when I caught the first whiff of it. The acrid, sulfurous tang from someone in the neighborhood burning coal. And this week the wood smoke, which at least smells better than coal, is starting to emanate from chimneys all over town. The smoke is on its way, my friends, and soon it will fill our valleys and choke our cities, mirroring the absolute failure of state and federal energy policy as Montanans wrestle with outrageous fuel costs in a simple attempt to stay warm in the cold, dark days ahead.
I remember well the sight coming down McDonald Pass when I came to Helena to lobby the Legislature back in the mid-’80s. The town sat in the bowl of the valley—or at least I figured the town was down there—under the thick, gray-brown cloud that covered it.
Having lived in the mountains for years and burned wood for heating, cooking and saunas, nothing made me cheerier than “toasting my buns” backed up to a roaring wood stove in the depths of winter. But in the mountains, there was always a wind to blow away the smoke and none of us in the little ghost town community ever gave it a second, let alone a negative, thought. Rural Montanans burned wood, period. It was abundant, cheap, and if not exactly easy to get, at least it was attainable with a commensurate output of energy. “Wood heats you twice,” we used to say, “once when you get it, and once when you burn it.”
But communities with tens of thousands of people, tucked into valleys where winter inversions regularly trapped not only the wood smoke but every other pollutant from cars, trucks, industry and commercial operations was quite another thing. Bozeman, Helena, Missoula, Kalispell and Whitefish were regularly transformed from beautiful towns draped in white under the crystal blue skies of winter to gray-brown miasmas where just breathing outdoors, let alone exercising, became a struggle. After all, in Montana you’re not supposed to be able to see the air you’re breathing.
When things got bad enough, town after town initiated restrictions on burning wood. Study groups were set up, ordinances drafted and passed, and the resultant bureaucracies went out to enforce the new standards. Not surprisingly, it worked, and slowly but surely the air got better.
Now, however, comes the Age of the Energy Empires, where those who produce the energy we need to heat and light our homes are calling all the shots with solid cronies in oil-men Bush and Cheney, and a compliant Congress that bends over backward to make sure they can charge anything they want to get everything they want. The Energy Barons have us firmly by the bulbs (so to speak), and unless you have unlimited fiscal resources—which most Montanans do not—the choice of necessity for many is to turn back the clock and revert to burning wood, or coal, or waste oil, to stay warm.
While younger readers will not remember, those of us with a few years under our belts will easily recall the so-called “energy crisis” of the ’70s. It was precipitated by an oil embargo initiated by our “friends” in the Middle East, and quickly led to long lines for gasoline and skyrocketing prices for all other fuels.
Back then, when our nation still had a semblance of vision and concern for the future, America was urged to conserve. The same old lines that are so worn out now were fresh then—we had to, for our own preservation, eliminate our reliance on foreign oil. And so we set to it, driving smaller cars, initiating a 55-mph speed limit, seeking energy efficiency through the insulation of homes and businesses and building designs that took advantage of our single greatest energy source—the sun. President Carter appeared in a cardigan, urging Americans to turn down their thermostats to conserve energy. We looked to Europe, which had high standards of living but consumed much less energy per capita, as our model.
But then Jimmy Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, who in no way, shape or form could ever have passed for a conservationist. Instead, Reagan introduced us to the policy of “supply side” economics which, simply stated, left conservation in the dust and began the disastrous attempt to drill, mine, and burn our way to a prosperous future. His discredited and infamous hit man for pillaging America’s remaining energy resources was Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who never met an oil well or coal mine he didn’t love.
As it turned out, Watt’s rapacious appetite for trashing public lands finally got him run out of office. But the damage was done. Gone was America’s short love affair with conservation and renewable energy. In its place came the new future—of Hummers, McMansions, and a disregard for consumption and pollution that has earned us the scorn of the world as our tiny portion of the global population consumes fully a quarter of the earth’s energy resources.
We have blown it, and our payback is on the way. While the Energy Barons struggle to carry their ill-got gains to the bank, Americans are scrambling just to heat their homes. Across the nation, from New England to the Pacific Coast, a new wave of wood, coal and waste-oil burning is rising as homes and businesses seek “alternative” energy because they can no longer afford anything else.
So breathe deeply while you can, fellow Montanans, for a long winter of choking smog, watery eyes and asthmatic children is headed our way as the smoke of our failed energy policy fills our valleys and towns—and our political leaders continue to stumble blindly down the foolish path of “supply side” solutions.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.