Almost seven years ago, nearing the end of his first year in office, Gov. Brian Schweitzer threw what he called "The Governor's Energy Symposium" at Montana State University. By then he had already earned the moniker "The Coal Cowboy" from national media for his over-the-top promotion of a mythological substance called "clean coal." As many Montanans know, his lauded development of our coal resources never did amount to a single "clean coal" facility. So now that we're back to reality, Schweitzer is off on his high horse again, this time to China, where he says he's going to peddle Montana's coal to Asia. And just like all those years ago, the "clean" part is mythological.
It's worth noting that utility corporations primarily paid for the Governor's Energy Symposium. To their way of thinking, it really didn't matter how much Schweitzer wanted to talk about "clean coal." What mattered was that he was talking about developing Montana's enormous reserves of low-grade coal. As the owners of the massive coal-burning power plants at Colstrip well knew, there was plenty of money to be made turning coal into electricity without worrying about how clean the process was.
In fact, the wells and groundwater of Colstrip's own employees had already been so badly polluted by seepage from coal ash ponds that they sued the companies they worked for in a desperate attempt to restore their water supplies. They won, but the wells and groundwater remain forever polluted because coal is simply a very dirty fuel with lots of nasty side effects.
That episode aside, the Colstrip power plants never lost a beat. Day and night the draglines devour the Eastern Montana landscape, dumping endless tons of coal into the waiting maws of the furnaces. And while it is now almost lost in the history of the 1970s, some still remember the battle to double the number of Colstrip's coal-fired power plants—a battle the citizens eventually lost. The new plants came on line, but their output was never destined for Montana's use. Instead, it was targeted for export on massive transmission lines because Montana already had all the electricity it needed to serve our population and there was money to be made in unregulated commercial sales to out-of-state interests.
The coal and utility companies had their eyes on an even bigger prize, however: the Otter Creek Coal Tracts. This massive deposit, estimated at 1.3 billion tons, lay beneath a checkerboard of land ownership, with half belonging to the state and half belonging to private interests. The state's half of the deposits were deeded to Montana by the federal government years before Schweitzer took office, when then-governor Marc Racicot cut a deal with the feds as compensation for their canceling a proposed gold mine on the border of Yellowstone National Park.
There were, however, some serious problems with developing Otter Creek. First, the Tongue River Railroad would have to be built to haul the coal to market. The citizen-rancher group Northern Plains Resource Council had battled the railroad's promoters for years because the line would cut many of their members' ranches in half. By the time Schweitzer came along, there was another problem—the railroad would run through the very expensive Miles City Hatchery, where the vibrations from the endless coal trains were determined to be very detrimental to the hatchery's fish-raising operations. And finally, the state had not yet decided to develop Otter Creek when Schweitzer took office. It was unpopular among many Democrats because coal burning had been identified as the primary source of climate changing global warming gasses that now threaten the existence of life on earth as we know it.
Opportunity came knocking in the form of a Democratic governor who pushed coal development regardless of what science and experience proved. And so, with a smile on their faces, those utility and mining corporations gladly picked up the tab for the symposium to broadcast Schweitzer's coal promotion. You can bet they laughed heartily while hiding behind the governor's façade of "clean coal," as he waved his little vials of liquid fuels derived from coal and lauded non-existent Air Force contracts from the equally non-existent multi-billion-dollar plants that would be necessary to produce the fuels.
Now, seven years later, the Otter Creek Coal Tracts are open for business thanks to Schweitzer. An all-Democratic Land Board approved leasing the state's share of the coal to the mega-corporation Arch Coal last year for $87 million and royalties when the coal is finally mined. To her credit, only Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau voted against the leases every time because of environmental and societal concerns. Attorney General Steve Bullock joined her in the final vote only because Bullock didn't think the state got enough money for the coal. Led by Schweitzer, State Auditor Monica Lindeen and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch voted for the leases, and Otter Creek, unlike "clean coal," became a reality.
This week, while Montana faces its most severe flooding in recent times, Schweitzer is in China for two weeks on a junket. We have communities underwater while our governor is on the other side of the globe peddling the dirtiest fuel on earth.
At the end of his Energy Symposium, Schweitzer said our biggest job was to show China and India how to use coal cleanly. Perhaps he'll give that speech again to the Chinese. The truth, however, is that Montana's coal is going to be exported in endless westbound coal trains for use in dirty, coal-fired power plants. The resulting pollution will come back to Montana in the form of mercury, acid rain, and even more radical climate change. While the Coal Cowboy is back in the saddle on his horse Promotion, "clean coal" remains as great a myth as ever.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.