Fire sale 

Latest Otter Creek vote creates dirty double standard

Western Montanans got the news last week that British Columbia Prime Minister Gordon Campbell intends to sign an agreement with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer to end coal, coalbed methane or gold mining in the provincial area that drains into Montana's Flathead Basin. Yet, in what can only be seen as a dirty double standard, Schweitzer and two fellow Land Board members voted this week to drastically reduce the bid price for the coal in Montana's Otter Creek tracts, which drain into the Tongue River. Saving British Columbia and sacrificing Montana reveals the schizophrenia within Schweitzer's energy policy—along with more than a little political deceit.

Under world media attention at the Winter Olympics, British Columbia Lt. Gov. Steven Point unveiled the pending agreement with Schweitzer during the traditional Speech from the Throne to the British Columbia Legislative Assembly. "Mining, oil and gas development and coalbed gas extraction will not be permitted in British Columbia's Flathead Valley," Point said, in an obvious attempt to highlight the provincial government's efforts to protect the environment. Schweitzer, meanwhile, said the agreement resulted from years of negotiation, adding that the U.S. and Canadian federal governments would be asked to buy out existing permits and compensate corporations for exploration investments.

The million-acre area, which has seen mining and drilling activity for more than a century, lies just north of Glacier National Park and is home to grizzly bears, wolves and many other sensitive species. It also provides clean, cold water for the Flathead River and Flathead Lake. In recent years, however, coal, oil, gas and gold exploration has increased, leading to intensified efforts by top federal and state officials to pressure British Columbia to not approve additional mineral extraction there.

While the specifics of the agreement have yet to be released, from all indications this will be a significant step toward providing the area with protection commensurate with its natural resources and the drainages it shares with the United States. Of course, there could be stumbling blocks ahead in obtaining the buy-out funding and extending the development ban in perpetuity, but for now, this is very good news for the Flathead.

Travel now to southeast Montana, far from the rich and famous of the bustling Flathead Valley to the Tongue River Valley. While there's a distinct lack of real estate activity, new subdivisions and upscale McMansions, the area is home to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and family ranches that span generations. This serene landscape of gently rolling hills stands in contrast to Glacier's rocky, snow-covered peaks and, unlike the Flathead's west slope, precipitation is sparse and welcome. As a result, both surface and groundwater are very precious commodities for agricultural and domestic use.

More than a decade ago, the federal government bought out a proposed gold mine on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park and, as part of the deal, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, turned down a $10 million payment and instead opted for thousands of acres and millions of tons of federal coal deposits to be ceded to Montana. These lands, owned in a checkerboard fashion with Great Northern Properties, became known as the Otter Creek tracts. Racicot's successor, Gov. Judy Martz, took control of the tracts about eight years ago and the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to spend $300,000 of state money to have the tracts studied for their commercial potential. Montana spent another $70,000 recently to have the coal values appraised.

In December 2009, the Land Board, comprised of Montana's five top elected officials—all Democrats—voted 4-1 to put the Otter Creek tracts up for lease, settling on a bonus bid price of 25 cents a ton. The bonus payments would be made up front, whether or not the coal was eventually mined. Not coincidentally, Great Northern had just recently announced that it had a bonus bid contract with Arch Coal Co. for 10 cents a ton for their part of the coal deposits, to be paid over a five-year period. To put it in perspective, bonus bid prices for Wyoming coal have brought 80 cents per ton or higher.

Ironically, the only Land Board member to vote against the leases was Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, who gave an incredible speech about our responsibility to future generations as reason to leave the coal in the ground. The speech was met by thunderous applause from Missoula high school students who testified against leasing the coal over concerns about global climate change and their future.

The leases were offered, but no bids were received by the deadline. Instead, an Arch Coal subsidiary spent the price of a postage stamp to send the Land Board a letter telling them they had to lower the price. And just as if we were living in Appalachia, Montana's officials abdicated their leadership responsibilities and jumped to do the company's bidding.

This week, those same high school students, plus more, testified against leasing the coal. And once again, Juneau stood with the students, this time joined by Attorney General Steve Bullock, who, much to his credit, would not vote for such a low price.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who has repeated ad nauseum that the coal must be leased "for the students," moved to lower the price—in spite of not a single student testifying in favor of leasing. She was joined by State Auditor Monica Lindeen and Schweitzer in voting for the fire sale price of 15 cents a ton.

Why is water for Flathead Valley Montanans worth saving, but Tongue River Montanans get their scarce water sacrificed to coal mining? That's our dirty double standard. And why, after endlessly touting himself as "clean and green," would Schweitzer vote for mining coal that is likely going to Pacific Rim customers' dirty power plants? That, sad to say, is nothing but political deceit. We deserve better. But by one vote we, and the future, got short-changed again.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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