The lost boys: Rehberg, Tester and Baucus wrong on Malmstrom

It sure seems like there’s something in the water in our nation’s capital that encourages unbelievably whacky ideas. Take the latest case of D.C. dementia that struck the entire Montana Congressional delegation last week. In case you hadn’t heard, Rep. Rehberg and Senators Tester and Baucus all jumped to offer their support for building a military coal-to-liquids plant at the outmoded Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls as a new “mission” for the base.

Anyone who has been following the slow demise of Malmstrom knows that it once housed the intercontinental ballistic missiles deemed so necessary in the long Cold War with the former Soviet Union. But over time, the nuclear warheads those missiles carried became less an asset and more a burden—especially after the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended.

Now, Malmstrom’s role—or “mission” in military vernacular—is definitely less clear and, truth be told, the base is pretty much a has-been as far as strategic usefulness goes. After all, it’s sitting in the middle of the country, a heck of a long way from any border except Canada’s, and flying bombers or fighters out of there means burning a lot of fuel and making a long haul to get anywhere…even out of Montana’s airspace.

For years Montana’s congressional delegations have wheedled and whined about how to keep the base open—though anyone can see it makes little economic, military or strategic sense to do so. Way back in 1995, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission recommended that Malmstrom be “realigned” by relocating the 43rd Air Refueling Group and its KC-135 aircraft to MacDill AFB in Florida, ceasing “all fixed-wing aircraft operations” and closing the airfield but leaving “a small helicopter field area to support the 341st Missile Wing.”

In a classic example of the significant threat facing our nation from the military-industrial complex President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about half a century ago, any attempts to actually close the base have been jumped on and defeated by Republicans and Democrats alike. Meanwhile, politicians greased the tracks to keep the military pork flowing to Montana through a variety of useless but expensive “upgrades” and the continuous search for new missions that might be marginally credible enough to find a home in the bloated defense budget.

Last week, however, the lost boys of Montana’s Congressional delegation went over the top with their  unbelievable endorsement of turning Malmstrom into a coal-to-liquids facility to produce diesel and other fuels for the military.

The idea is so ludicrous it’s hard to know where to start, but here’s basically what it boils down to: First they dig the coal out of the ground, presumably somewhere in Montana and, most likely, somewhere in the vicinity of the massive coal fields in the Powder and Tongue River basins. Mind you, digging coal from strip mines is not exactly an environmentally benign activity—only 2 percent of all the land disturbed by Montana’s coal mines over the last three decades has been fully reclaimed. But this is just the first step in their inane plan.

Next, you ship the coal to Malmstrom by rail. My maps say it’s about 250 miles from Colstrip to Great Falls, so contemplate what it will cost (and how much it will pollute) to ship millions of tons of coal a year from one end of Montana to the other and you’re beginning to get the picture. Add to that the recent decision by the Federal Transportation Board to deny a claim by the Western Fuels Association and the Basin Electric Power Cooperative to reduce Burlington-Northern Santa-Fe Railroad’s shipping rate of $6 a ton to move coal 200 miles from Wyoming to their energy facilities. Considering that the price of Powder River coal is about $10.60 a ton right now, that means the shipping alone would nearly double the cost of the raw fuel.

But hey, money is no problem for our “defense” budget, which is setting all-time spending records and burdening future generations with trillions of dollars in debt. No matter what it costs, apparently keeping Malmstrom open is worth it—at least to Baucus, Tester and Rehberg.

Finally the coal would be unloaded at Malmstrom where, through the miracle of military appropriations, a multi-billion-dollar coal-to-liquids facility will be waiting with open maw. In goes the coal, the wheels go round, and out comes the spiffy new liquid fuels for the military.

But wait, there’s this other little catch besides the cost: what to do with the massive amounts of carbon dioxide—the main greenhouse gas causing global warming—that the coal-to-liquid process produces. By the best estimates, carbon capture and sequestration technology is still a decade or more from reality at the industrial scale such a plant would require. When and if the technology becomes available, it will require massive compressors, hundreds of miles of pipelines, and someone to take long-term liability for the carbon dioxide pumped deep beneath the earth.

Implementing carbon capture and sequestration takes a lot more energy than you’d think, too. The latest studies indicate it would require another 1/3 or more coal just to cover the energy needs of carbon capture and sequestration…which means that much more coal needs to be strip-mined and shipped to produce the same amount of end-product liquid fuel.

Given the economics and logistics, it just doesn’t seem possible that our congressional delegation could back such a looney idea. Then again, with the insane military feeding frenzy in D.C. these days, maybe they thought no one would notice a few billion more.

Congress can get us into war, but not out; take our liberties, but not restore them; trash our environment but not fix it. And now they want to dump taxpayer money down a black hole to dig carbon up, transport it across the state, and re-bury it. The lost boys of D.C. are lost indeed.

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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