UM totally botched its biomass boiler proposal.
For months, university brass scoffed at the proposal's opponents, who argued that burning wood for energy would cost more than burning natural gas and that the boiler's emissions would worsen Missoula's already poor air quality. And then UM President Royce Engstrom got up in Turner Hall last Friday to say that those were precisely the reasons why the school was finally canceling its biomass effort.
That it took so long for UM to publicly acknowledge the financial issues is disconcerting. It's downright humiliating that Engstrom had to apologize on behalf of UM Vice President Bob Duringer, who recently said that critics such as the WildWest Institute's Matthew Koehler, who was among the people who pointed out those financial realities, were engaged in "a lower level of eco-terrorism."
"While reducing carbon emissions is the right thing to do, I will not commit the university to doing so under the conditions of financial loss," Engstrom said last week.
While we're not advocating for the failed boiler proposal, we have to wonder: Considering that UM, by its own admission, just learned an expensive lesson, why would it reject out of hand the possibility of learning still more for the same price? Put another way, if reducing carbon emissions is the right thing to do, why won't UM even consider paying to do it? Unfortunately, amid sometimes snippy discussions of the biomass boiler's financial projections, important questions like this were given short shrift.
Must technologies that might help wean us off fossil fuels have to pay for themselves? Isn't there value in reducing our carbon footprint, in tapping a local energy source or in providing a new if small market for local mills? And is any of that valuable enough for Missoulians to endure more polluted air?
We're afraid these questions weren't explored in part because UM's intransigence wouldn't allow for it. Duringer seemed to have been conducting a public relations campaign, not vetting a promising technology.
Engstrom claimed that something educational did come from the $541,000 UM spent to explore the viability of biomass. Perhaps, but it could have been so much more. As it is, what was learned seems hardly to make up for the embarrassment—a point that cannot and should not be obscured by Engstrom's simultaneous announcement of a new College of Technology campus.