Black and blue 

Why are Dems continuing Republican coal projects?

Momentum is a word much loved by politicians, especially on the campaign trail and especially when they have it. Inertia is, likewise, often used to describe the state of political initiatives. But these terms have their origin in physics, not politics, and are used to describe the energy of bodies in motion. In the physics of politics, however, there comes a time to end the momentum and inertia of certain policies and projects—and that time has come for the Otter Creek Coal Tracts. Unfortunately, Democrats continue to carry forward this very bad idea from the Republican past.

Longtime Montanans know the story well, but for those new to the state, a brief bit of background may prove useful. The tale starts in the mid-'90s when the federal government bought out a proposed open-pit gold mine located on the border of Yellowstone National Park. While this was a very good and necessary move to protect the park, it came at a time when Montana was dominated by Republicans. Marc Racicot was governor and his party held both houses of the Legislature by solid majorities.

The idea of shutting down a mine didn't sit well with the Republicans, so they petitioned the federal government to somehow mitigate what they claimed were lost jobs from the non-existent mine. The federal government offered Montana $10 million, but despite testimony by the head of the Montana Coal Council urging the state to "take the money," Racicot convinced the feds to deed Otter Creek's thousands of acres of coal-bearing land to the state instead.

The problems with Otter Creek coal are many and varied. Not the least is the sub-bituminous quality of the coal itself, its high sodium content that makes it unsuitable for most current coal-burning power plants and the need to develop a very expensive and highly controversial railroad through the beautiful ranches of the Tongue River Valley. Moreover, the tracts are checkerboarded with privately owned lands. These complications are why that coal is still where it belongs—in the ground.

Racicot left the governor's office at the turn of the century, but his successor, Judy Martz, convinced the diminished but still dominant Republican majorities of the legislature to cough up $300,000 in state funds for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to do an assessment of Otter Creek's coal.

All things must end and, sure enough, Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, took back the governor's office in 2004 while the Legislature went through a period of identity crisis with split majorities see-sawing back and forth in the House and Senate. Although Schweitzer told crowds on the campaign trail, "The real treasure in Montana is the land, not what lies beneath it," it didn't take him long to jump on the pitch-black coal train, promoting such blarney as "clean coal," "coal-to-liquids" and "carbon sequestration," basically greenwashing the dirtiest fuel on the planet. After five years in office, it's worth noting that not a single one of Schweitzer's high-tech coal schemes has come to fruition, but his endless coal promotion caused East Coast newspapers to dub him "The Coal Cowboy," a title that still makes former supporters cringe.

As we all know, after eight long years, George Bush basically stuck his party's future in a bottle and threw it overboard as Democrats swept the 2008 elections nationwide. It is likewise well known that the rallying cry of those countless campaigns was "Change" and "Hope," led by the successful Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

We're now a little further down the line of history and instead of change, we find the blue Dems still in love with black coal—especially here in Montana. Just this year the DNRC again spent state funds to hire consultants to ascertain how much the state could wring from Otter Creek's coal if it were to be developed. As in so many pie-in-the-sky estimates we've seen come out of the Schweitzer administration, this appraisal found a veritable pot of gold waiting for Montanans at the end of the black rainbow. Billions of tons of coal would produce hundreds of millions of dollars, provide thousands of jobs and all we'd have to do is decide to lease it to the highest bidder.

To maintain the momentum of this notoriously bad idea, last week the owner of the private tracts at Otter Creek, Great Northern Properties, announced that it had signed an agreement with Arch Coal, one of the nation's largest coal-mining corporations, to lease their part of the tracts. Now, if only the state would, say, add some impetus to the obvious inertia, we'd be rolling in the dough in a few years when the market for coal, by their estimates, booms once again.

It's a mystery, when the effects of global warming are increasingly impacting nations and ecosystems across the planet, how the coal market could rebound. In fact, in the last several years, as forests die, seas warm, and myriad species face disruption if not extinction, many proposed coal-fired power plants across the nation and world have been cancelled. Add to that the huge uncertainty that taxes and policy will play in coal's future and Otter Creek looks more and more like the fool's game it is.

Unfortunately, it's a fool's game initiated by Republicans but now being perpetuated by Democrats, who hold every seat on the state's Land Board. Ironically, as the nations of the world meet in Copenhagen to wrestle with the disastrous impacts of climate change, Montana's top elected officials continue to greenwash the mining and burning of the most polluting fuel on the planet.

To get back to the physics of politics, it's clearly time for the Democrats on the Land Board to pull the plug on Otter Creek, write off our losses, bring this bad idea to a dead stop, and move on to the change we were promised and so desperately need.

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

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