Conservation conversion 

Burns and Rehberg do false battle on the Front

The news that Sen. Conrad Burns had included a provision in a Senate appropriations bill that would ban new oil and gas leases on the Rocky Mountain Front swept across Montana last week, sparking a deluge of editorials hailing the decision. Even before the ink was dry on those happy words, however, Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana’s lone congressman and Burns’ fellow Republican, stepped in to pour ice-cold water over the party, declaring he would oppose any effort to impose a drilling or leasing ban on the Front.

Some might find it strange that Conrad Burns, who has, after all, been in the U.S. Senate for 18 years, would suddenly reverse course on his previous opposition to protecting the Front and embrace conservation of the area’s incredible vistas, wildlife and habitat.

In politics, however, such sudden reversals of policy (or at least of promises) during election years are far from rare. These so-called election-year conversions happen frequently when incumbents wind up in close races—and Conrad is definitely fighting for his political life this election cycle. When the chips are down, some poll finds a slice of likely voters will give their support to a candidate who favors a certain policy and, bingo—a conversion occurs.

As luck would have it, that appears to be exactly what’s happening in this case. Burns is fighting for support from those who just might be inclined to go with his opponent Jon Tester, a well-known third-generation farmer from Big Sandy whom the locals might find a tad more in touch with Montanans than Burns.

And then there’s the poll. Conducted in April by a respected and traditionally Republican organization, Public Opinion Strategies, the recently released results show that 54 percent of Montanans are “more likely” to vote for a U.S. Senate candidate who supports banning oil and gas development on the Rocky Mountain Front. For Burns, whom pre-primary election polls showed trailing Tester, 54 percent is looking very good—good enough, cynics might say, to spark a conservation conversion.

Suddenly Conrad Burns, the traditional warhorse for extractive industries and one of Congress’ largest recipients of their campaign contribution largesse, decides that, by golly, it’s in the best interest of Montanans to preserve the Front after all. So he slips an amendment into the 2007 Appropriations Act that would appear to help achieve that goal and longtime supporters of the Front go wild with joy.

Burns, however, has learned a great deal about the intricacies of congressional language in his overly long stint in the Senate and he didn’t exactly go whole hog on the protection end of the deal. In fact, his amendment has a loophole big enough to drive a thousand oil rigs through. All it would take is having his buddy George Bush, the Texas oil-man turned president, declare a national “energy emergency” and Conrad’s protections for the Front go up in smoke—literally.

All the celebration and positive coverage of Burns’ sudden conversion must have been just too much for Denny Rehberg, who, although facing an election challenge of his own, decided to douse the party by announcing his opposition to any oil and gas ban. While declaring himself a Montanan who loves “to hunt, fish and hike on our public lands,” Rehberg went on to promise that he “won’t support any policy that jeopardizes access to these areas.” What he left out, of course, was any explanation of how leasing federal land to private companies for commercial exploitation would somehow ensure public access—but no need to ponder that omission considering Rehberg’s other comments.

Instead, Rehberg’s logic (and I use that word cautiously) seems to rely on concepts and phraseology that has been outworn for decades to defend further development of the Front. Perhaps giving us a foreshadowing of just how fragile the Burns amendment would be, Rehberg declared that America has to end its reliance on foreign energy and is already in the middle of “an energy crisis that threatens not only our economy but our national security.” The solution, according to Rehberg (and every oil company lobbyist in Washington) is to continue to drill and burn every recoverable ounce of oil and gas in the nation.

Although Rehberg says “We need a comprehensive inventory of what lies beneath the Rocky Mountain Front,” his further statements clarify that an inventory is far from his desired goal. “It’s time for America to buy American energy,” he declared. “It’s time for America to buy Montana energy.” What this means is that Denny Rehberg’s plan is actually to step up energy exploration on the Front under the guise of conducting an “inventory,” and then get right on with the next step, which is wholesale production to meet the nation’s gluttonous and disastrously polluting energy appetite.

As for protecting the Front, Rehberg again drops back to punt from the past with the equally worn-out rhetoric that America’s “ingenuity and the innovative skilled workforce” will “attain energy independence and protect our environment.” But as usual, Rehberg didn’t bother to point to any concrete examples of where places like the Front (if there are any) have been run through the gamut of impacts from commercial-scale energy development while protecting the environment—let alone achieving “energy independence” for the nation from the supply side. Instead, what we are likely to get is business as usual: the corporate CEOs get the gold and Montanans get the shaft, as well as the polluted surface and ground water and the tab to clean it all up.

The Burns amendment will have to survive the House-Senate Conference committee, and given Rehberg’s opposition, it might be a tad early to start turning cartwheels for the Front. But the rap upon which Rehberg bases his opposition is pure baloney. And Montanans, who are likely to recognize it as such, may just voice their displeasure in the voting booths come November.

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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