Burning down the house 

It’s time to end Montana’s coal-burning debate

As the last remaining Republican office-holder in the executive branch, it should have been no surprise to see Secretary of State Brad Johnson take a shot at Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his coal-development plans during the recent Republican Party convention. But new data on global warming combined with recent moves in the coal energy industry suggest the time has finally come to end Montana’s long-running debate about building new coal-burning power plants.

For those who may have missed it, Johnson set off Schweitzer by calling the governor’s coal-to-liquids plan a “10-year-long, $10 billion pipe dream” and chastising him for not moving more quickly to develop the Otter Creek coal tracts. Those tracts, which are estimated to contain some 600 million tons of coal, were granted to the state by the federal government during the Racicot administration as part of a settlement to abandon a planned gold mine near the borders of Yellowstone National Park.

Johnson made his comments on Friday and by Monday morning’s meeting of the Land Board, on which both Schweitzer and Johnson sit, the governor had all guns loaded and blazing. Considering that coal development has been one of the highest priorities of the Schweitzer administration, Johnson sure could have picked a better subject if he wanted to take on the governor. As it was, he got drubbed but good.

For an hour Schweitzer, his economic advisers and state agency personnel inundated Johnson with a tidal wave of information on where the state stands in its coal development plans. Maps showing coal deposits, transmission lines, pipelines and railroads were displayed with accompanying information on the types and quantities of coal available and the various methods by which it could potentially be developed.

The key word here is “potentially.” Certain types of coal are valued for their high thermal content, others—namely the softer coals—work better for gasification or coal-to-liquids conversion. Some deposits can’t yet be economically leased because they lack transmission or transportation infrastructure such as railroads, and others have problems such as deep overburden or lack of available process water.

By and large, Schweitzer has stumped for what he calls “clean coal” development—although early in his term the governor made some pretty outlandish statements about supplying all the liquid fuels for the nation and the Department of Defense from Montana’s coal deposits. But the harsh reality of industrial investment portfolios demands a known return from a given investment and those willing to toss down the estimated billion and half bucks it would take to get a modern coal-to-liquids plant built in Montana have been in short supply.

Another of Schweitzer’s big reasons for pushing clean coal technologies is his stated belief that we need to set an example for the emerging industrial giants of China and India, where new coal-burning plants are being built at the rate of about one a week. The gov’s logic is that if we get a modern plant with full carbon sequestration up and running, China and India will follow suit.

But while Montana’s politicians argue and worry about China, it appears that China has plans of its own. According to a June 16 article in the Shreveport [Louisiana] Times, the Chinese firm Synfuels, Inc., announced it would invest $5 billion to build a coal gasification plant south of Baton Rouge using Louisiana’s soft lignite coal to produce “gasoline, liquefied petroleum gas, synthetic gas, methanol, ethanol, sulfuric acid and agglomerate, a road construction material, with steam and electricity as by-products.” Louisiana’s major petrochemical companies are expected to purchase the entire output of the plant.

Much closer to home, Wyoming’s Clear Energy Solutions has joined DKRW Energy of Houston and MidAmerican Energy of Des Moines in choosing Wyoming to develop their coal-to-liquids plants. They picked Wyoming because it already has the rail lines, and because the Wyoming legislature exempted coal-to-liquids plants from sales tax, and the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority has a $10 million budget to promote power-line and energy construction projects including a proposed IGCC plant that would gasify coal and sequester the carbon in depleted oil formations.

Given the rancorous 35-year debate over developing Montana’s coal deposits, one might think that the handwriting is on the wall and Schweitzer could now turn to ensuring that Montanans’ energy needs are met in a clean and sustainable fashion instead of chasing the golden goose of global supply and demand. After all, we have significant natural gas deposits in Montana and the price of gas, much more than electricity, is what’s really putting the squeeze on Montana families.

Instead, and much to the dismay of those who fight to protect Montana’s environment, the governor announced this week that he is supporting the plan to build a coal-burning power plant in Great Falls. But the plant will not sequester carbon and will emit significant amounts of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming—which falls far short of the governor’s former goals of backing only “clean coal” development.

Serendipitously, within days of the governor’s announcement of his support for the coal-burning plant, a new report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned of an unexpected and sudden warming around the Earth’s tropical belt. The scientists say “the climate system has exceeded a critical threshold” which will melt all tropical-zone glaciers “in the near future…sea levels will continue to rise…the magnitude of severe storms will rise” and “there is the risk of changing the world as we know it to some form in which a lot of people on the planet will be put at risk.”

Taken together, the conclusions couldn’t be more clear. It’s time to end discussions of more coal burning. We can’t afford it, the planet can’t afford it, and the future can’t afford it. Since the global energy market seems to have outpaced us, now would be a good time to re-prioritize our efforts toward taking care of Montanans first—with responsible, sustainable, nonpolluting energy.

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 opinion@missoulanews.com.

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