Ochenski: America’s Energy Mine 

Will the national power crisis turn Montana into an energy colony?

What happens when you put an oilman in the White House and give him a P>Halliburton executive for vice president? We become the United States of Texas—where hapless citizens suffer ever-rising costs while their hard-earned and much-needed dollars go to feed the endless gluttony of fabulously wealthy energy conglomerates in Texas. This massive redistribution of wealth alone would seem enough for anyone. But no. The energy barons and their cohorts in the Oval Office also want whatever is left in the way of energy resources that may be in wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, or national parks—and they plan build new pipelines and transmission corridors to get it out. Does all this seem familiar? It should.

Back in the ’70s Americans were told we were in an "energy crisis." Suddenly, there were lines at gas stations and the price per gallon doubled. At the mercy of oil-producing nations, we were told the only way out was to drill Alaska’s North Slope region and bisect the state with one of the largest pipelines the world has ever seen—built right through caribou calving grounds, under and across raging rivers, and terminating in an ice-choked seaport where tankers like the infamous Exxon Valdez would wreak ecological havoc as they tried to carry the black gold away. Almost 30 years later, the same rap from the same people is once again rocking the nation.

According to the "experts," gas prices could reach $3 a gallon this summer. Meanwhile, market prices for electricity have gone crazy, precipitating the cutback or shutdown of much of Montana’s industrial sector and threatening residential consumers with huge increases. In California, the epicenter of the electricity deregulation crisis and home to the world’s sixth largest economy, tens of millions are living with unannounced rolling blackouts as government officials struggle to keep the state from sliding into recession or bankruptcy. How bad is it? Having spent billions of state dollars trying to mitigate the impacts, California’s state treasurer advised the governor to temporarily seize the generation facilities under emergency powers if prices "continue to careen out of control."

Comes now the Bush-Cheney energy policy which will do nothing to stop this rip-off and everything possible to enable it. Global warming be damned, in the next 20 years the Bush administration says we will need thousands of new fossil fuel power plants, 38,000 miles of new pipelines to get the fuel to those facilities, and a web of new transmission lines to carry the power away. Adding insult to injury, President Bush has announced his intent to pursue federal legislation that will make it easier to condemn private lands for energy uses. Since they’re talking Big Energy here, the administration has also decided to resurrect the nuclear energy industry.

So what does all this mean for Montana? During the national energy production frenzy of the ’70s, citizens rightly feared that our state would simply become a sacrifice zone for energy production. Not for our own use, mind you, but for export to the nation at large. Still chafing from a century under the Copper Collar, Montanans were wary of being "rode hard and put away wet" by rapacious corporate interests. The Permanent Coal Tax Trust Fund had just been constitutionally established, the Major Facility Siting Act passed into law to protect citizens and communities from any undue effects of large industrial projects, and nuclear facilities were prohibited by a citizen’s initiative. The nation could and would exploit Montana’s energy resources, but it would do so, at least partially, under our terms.

But that was in the ’70s, when Congress still had enough guts to invest in conservation and alternative energy research, slap a windfall profits tax on oil companies, and force Detroit’s auto makers to develop fuel-efficient cars. During the intervening decades, however, our policymakers have lost their way in a glut of government- and Wall Street-backed consumerism and global, free market economic theories. Then, President Carter urged energy conservation and admitted that our nation "had its limits." Today, President Bush and Vice President Cheney slash funding for alternative energy development, blow off conservation efforts and call our consumption "blessed." And as blessed as it has been for the Dynamic Duo and their Texas energy cronies, it will become even more so when the nation’s sea of SUVs guzzles $3 a gallon gas.

Montana is in the cross-hairs as a supply source for the resources necessary to fix the nation’s energy woes. Since we have long produced more energy than we consume, new generation and transmission facilities will exist for one purpose—to produce energy for shipment out of state. In return, some may get jobs, but all Montanans will suffer the pollution and concurrent destruction of our cherished natural heritage. Meanwhile, the real money from this energy crisis will go to the same place as the windfall profits of the ’70s—right to the Texas energy conglomerates. Is there a way out? Perhaps. Montana’s citizens can once again rise up, as they did in the ’70s, and take control of our own future by rejecting the role of energy colony. Otherwise, with George Bush, Dick Cheney and our own governor cheering all the way, it looks like we’re doomed to become part of the United States of Texas—of, by, and for the energy conglomerates.



When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski contributes to the Missoula Independent as its political analyst.

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