De’ Coal Baby 

Sucked in again by the Otter Creek Coal Tracts

Half a century ago, long before political correctness expunged racial dialect from popular literature, parents would read their children Uncle Remus stories. The fictional Uncle Remus, an old Southern black man, told the tales of Brer Rabbit, in which the clever bunny escaped numerous disasters by using his wits. One of those tales, “De’ Tarbaby,” related how Brer Rabbit became stuck in a “baby” made of tar. First the rabbit hit him with one hand, which stuck fast in the tar, then the other, with the same result. Finally, Brer Rabbit kicked with both feet, which stuck him inextricably to de’ Tarbaby, where he helplessly awaited his certain doom.

Montana’s “Tarbaby” is the Otter Creek Coal Tracts, where governors past and present just can’t seem to avoid getting stuck.

For those new to the issue, the story of the Otter Creek Coal Tracts is worth relating. Back in the ’90s, the New World Mine, a gold mining operation, was being developed on the border of Yellowstone National Park, where it promised to trash both Yellowstone’s natural assets and its worldwide reputation.  

Montana’s politicians went to work to get the federal government to buy out the mine, which it did, and part of the deal required the federal government to either pay Montana $10 million or deed us large tracts of federal land near Ashland that are estimated to contain some 533 million tons of coal. The “logic” for this deal was that since the gold mine wouldn’t be operating, Montana would supplement the “lost” gold mining jobs with the “opportunity” to develop the coal tracts. The feds kept their dough and deeded over the coal.

But then a funny thing happened. For years, Jim Mockler, the head of the Montana Coal Council, had relentlessly championed the unlimited development of Montana’s coal. Yet in testimony before the Land Board, Mockler told Montana’s five highest elected officials that “the state should have taken the money” because the federal coal “had been there forever,” and if it was such a great opportunity, it would have been developed already.

Ignoring Mockler’s advice, Gov. Judy Martz and the Republican-dominated Legislature jumped on the Otter Creek “opportunity,” going so far as to appropriate $300,000 in state funds to pay for the initial environmental reviews to develop the tracts. And with that, Montana got one paw firmly stuck in de’ Coal Baby.

Luckily, Martz didn’t survive as governor long enough to stick more of the state to de’ Coal Baby. With the demise of the Republican legislative majorities, hope rose, for a moment, that the state would see the light, heed Mockler’s warning, and spend precious state resources and time on pursuits more promising than Otter Creek.

Unfortunately, that is not happening. Instead, Gov. Schweitzer has declared the development of the Otter Creek Coal Tracts a high priority for his administration. Schweitzer’s twist on the deal, however, is that the coal be turned into diesel through the Fischer-Tropsch process developed by German scientists in the early part of the last century and used to fuel the Nazi war machine. Apparently, the U.S. military is looking for a single fuel to power the bloated, billion-dollar-a-day American war machine, and F-T diesel might just fit the bill.

Some might wonder at this latest leap into de’ Coal Baby, especially given that it is estimated to wind up costing billions (that’s BILLIONS) to build the facilities necessary to convert the coal to diesel. That the governor who ran on a campaign promise to concentrate on helping Montana’s small businesses—by far the vast majority of businesses in the state—is proposing this boondoggle is also somewhat puzzling. After all, as anyone who has recently visited Glacier National Park can tell you, it will soon have to be renamed because the glaciers, clinging like white spiders to the ever-hotter rocks, are melting away thanks to global warming brought on by—you guessed it—the burning of fossil fuels. How producing and burning even more fossil fuels will enhance either Montana’s environment or economy remain unanswered questions.

Moreover, Schweitzer’s plan for liquefying Otter Creek coal is not the only idea out there. Billings entrepreneur Mike Gustafson has partnered with Bechtel Enterprises and Kennecott Energy to form the Otter Creek Energy Project (OCEP), which proposes to build a railroad through the Tongue River valley, a 100-mile power line, and a 750-megawatt coal-fired generator to produce electricity for sale in Montana and the Pacific Northwest sometime in the next three to five years. Just like burning the diesel, the coal-fired power plant will contribute significantly to the panoply of problems associated with continued global warming. And since Montana already produces twice as much electricity as we use, well, let’s not kid ourselves—this proposal is about greed, not need.

Of course, given that getting either the electricity or the diesel out of the state will require building expensive power lines and/or pipelines for hundreds of miles, there’s a real good chance this may not happen at all. In other words, it may well turn out to be a pipe dream that will never pencil out on the balance sheets.

But that raises the question: What happened to conservation? Far and away, the cheapest, cleanest, most cost-effective source of “new” energy is conservation—and right now Montana has one of the most conservation-minded Public Service Commissions in years. The majority of the Commission would like to move ahead with conservation measures such as real-time electricity metering, which financially rewards consumers who match their energy use to the most cost-effective time frame.

Instead of sticking ourselves inextricably to de’ Coal Baby with billions spent on coal liquefaction—or new coal-fired power plants—it makes vastly more sense for Montana to invest in conservation. And it won’t take billions.

All that’s missing is the visionary leadership to steer us in this new and better direction—and the political willpower to “get ‘er done.”

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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