Thunderous applause filled the convention hall when Brian Schweitzer, then a political unknown campaigning against incumbent U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, stood before a packed crowd at the Montana Wilderness Association a decade ago and proclaimed: "Montana's real treasure is the land, not what lies beneath it." While Schweitzer didn't unseat Burns, he did go on to ride "green" issues to the Governor's Office.
As most Montanans recall, it was near the end of his first year in office when suddenly Schweitzer decided that our state's future should be in a corporate and political fantasy called "clean coal." The next thing we knew, the governor was flying all over the country, appearing on talk shows and holding up his little vials of synthetic fuels derived from coal.
There he was, lauding a diesel substitute for trucks and cars, a jet-fuel substitute, and the promise of being able to make virtually any type of synthetic petroleum distillate from coal. Why, soon Montana would be supplying the Air Force with domestically produced fuels that burned cleaner than conventional, oil-based fuel, we were told. It was a proven science, the governor assured us, that had been used by the Nazis in WWII and that was currently being employed by South Africa.
And who can forget his endless and continuing proclamations that we would be able to get this abundant, cheap and clean source of energy without being held hostage to "sheiks and dictators" for imported petroleum.
In time, however, the truth became evident. "Clean coal" was merely an illusion used by a deceptive politician to fool the citizens into believing he held a deep-seated concern for the environment. And one by one, the phony "green energy" projects he promised fell apart.
First, the Air Force decided not to spend billions building a synthetic fuels plant at Great Falls' out-dated Malmstrom base because the economics didn't come close to making any sense. Many of Montana's environmentalists and economists had pointed this out, of course, but the governor conveniently ignored their criticism. Likewise, the billions that were supposed to be invested in a coal-to-liquids plant on the Crow reservation evaporated. In times past, Schweitzer would have been accurately dubbed a "snake-oil salesman" and likely ridden out of town.
As his "clean coal" ruse fell by the wayside, slowly but very surely, the green-wash governor turned coal black. While lauding wind energy, the Schweitzer administration was busy behind closed doors promoting virtually every coal development scheme proposed. First there was the mine at Roundup, which is now noted mostly for its record of accidents, violations and fatalities. Then he jumped on the bandwagon for a coal-fired power plant at Great Falls—until the federal government refused to loan it the money. But those were just small potatoes to the man who described himself as a "big ideas" governor.
His "big idea" was finally revealed as the development of the Otter Creek tracts when Schweitzer led a split Land Board to accept the bargain-basement prices dictated by Arch Coal. Infamously, the governor who claimed to be a rancher and farmer turned his back on the ranchers and farmers of the Tongue River Valley. Now the state would have to back not only the development of the mines, but also the long-fought Tongue River Railroad that would run through those farms and ranches.
And in the closing days of the last legislative session, Schweitzer rammed through a "carbon sequestration" bill to use Montana's Hi-Line farmers and ranchers as guinea pigs for an experiment to pump millions of tons of Canadian carbon dioxide from dirty coal-burning power plants under their homes and ranches.
Whatever shreds of "green" associated with Schweitzer were totally shredded last week when he attacked James Cameron, the director of blockbuster films Titanic and Avatar, for criticizing the environmental destruction wrought by the continuing development of Alberta's tar sands industry.
Proclaiming "Alberta oil is conflict-free energy," Montana's governor went on to trumpet his worn-out folderol: "Any of these people who say they don't like the oil sands...unless they're living naked in a cave and eating nuts, they are totally dependent on petrol. That petrol is either going to be produced in places like Montana and North Dakota and Alberta and Saskatchewan or it's going to be produced in places like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. I would prefer it to come from friends than enemies." Contradicting his own words, however, this self-same governor spent seven years happily taking piles of "green" money from Saudi Arabia's sheiks.
Those interested in the truth, rather than political propaganda, will benefit from a closer look at the supposedly "conflict-free" oil from what is widely held to be the most environmentally destructive oil extraction operation on the planet. And that truth is not hard to find.
The cover story of this month's National Geographic, which is not exactly a radical environmental publication, lays waste to Schweitzer's claims that Alberta's tar sands are "conflict free." You can read it and see the grim photos online. What you'll find is mind-boggling environmental destruction that puts an end to an eons-old way of life for Alberta's indigenous Indian people. Schweitzer's "conflict free" process leaves massive toxic settling ponds, horribly polluted rivers and groundwater, deformed fish, and human cancers on a scale that dwarf the tragedy of the Clark Fork River, America's largest and still problematic Superfund site.
That Schweitzer also supports turning our rural highways into permanent industrial corridors to ship hundreds of monster loads of tar sands equipment through Montana should remove any illusions about his commitment to clean energy.
The grim reality is that we got fooled again by yet another slick-talking politician. But now, at least, we know the truth and the battle lines are indelibly drawn. There's no longer any need to use the word "green" in association with Schweitzer—unless, of course, you're talking about the color of dirty energy money.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.