What Schweitzer left out of his State of the State

Gov. Schweitzer delivered his second State of the State address to the legislature last week and, as usual, did a bang-up job of promoting himself and his initiatives. From education to energy, he laid out his budgetary proposals with the zeal of P.T. Barnum hawking the wonders of his circus. But for those who have closely followed state policies, what Schweitzer didn’t talk about—such as the considerable problems that accompany some of his proposals and some of the more serious problems facing the state—were notable in their absence.

Front and center, the showpiece of Schweitzer’s speech was energy development, the single topic that has literally consumed the governor for much of his last two years in office. Once again he lauded his focus on “clean and green” energy, which is widely supported. But he mentioned neither the technological drawbacks to his coal development plans nor the significant portions of his other energy development plans that are anything but clean or green.

What Schweitzer has done—a common technique these days among those who are actually serving corporate interests while appearing to serve the environment—is known as “greenwashing.”

“Montana should not put carbon dioxide in our atmosphere,” Schweitzer told the Legislature. “I’m a supporter of clean and green coal technology.” Sounds bright green to me, and I suspect many other Montanans heard it that way, too.

But many would say there is no such thing as either clean or green coal technology—and they would be right. Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is one of the primary global warming gases emitted by conventional coal-fired power plants. Those listening to the governor’s speech would likely conclude that technologies now exist to permit industrial-scale coal development while adhering to Schweitzer’s promise that Montana wouldn’t be putting any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—and they would be wrong.

Montana doesn’t have any coal-to-liquids or coal-to-gas plants to back up Schweitzer’s claims of clean and green coal technology. But a key component of dealing with coal in any form is the ability to capture and store the massive amounts of carbon dioxide the process produces. One way the carbon dioxide can be stored is underground, which theoretically prevents it from entering the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. This process, in the jargon of the energy industry, is known as “geologic carbon sequestration.”

But in a just-released supplement to the Environmental Impact Statement on a coal-to-liquids plant proposed for Pennsylvania, the Department of Energy (DOE) admits that such technology for use in industrial-level production doesn’t yet exist. In DOE’s own words, the agency “has considered the potential to reduce project CO2 emissions using geologic sequestration. This is not a reasonable option because sequestration technology is not sufficiently mature to be implemented at production scale.” The report continues, stating: “Large-scale commercial deployment of the most promising carbon sequestration technologies is expected to be technically practicable within the next 15 years.” Fifteen years from now means the Department of Energy—the optimistic, pro-development Bush Department of Energy—is hoping to be able to employ such technology at production levels about 10 years after Brian Schweitzer leaves office, if then.

In the meantime, another thing the good gov didn’t mention is the massive environmental disruption such large-scale coal mining will bring to Montana. Coal seams often contain aquifers—and you have to mine the coal before you can run it through any of Schweitzer’s dream plants. Large-scale surface disturbance coupled with ground and surface water disruption is not clean and green. Although the governor calls coal mining “deep farming,” the reality is that fully 83 percent of all lands so far disturbed by coal mining in Montana have yet to be reclaimed, and a mere 2 percent have been deemed “fully reclaimed.”

Nor did the governor mention the proposed Canadian coal mine on the northern tributaries of the Flathead River. In fact, despite such development being the single greatest threat facing Flathead Lake, Schweitzer, after pledging to personally take care of the issue, recently decided to hand the problem off to the federal government. Perhaps, given his own endless cheerleading for coal mining, the governor finally realized the utter hypocrisy of his opposition to the Canadian coal mine.

Meanwhile, after hailing California’s decision to buy only green power—and lauding Montana’s opportunity to provide it—Schweitzer simply forgot to mention the massive DC power line he is supporting to deliver electricity directly from Montana to Las Vegas. And Las Vegas, as you might guess, has no particular opposition to where its power comes from or how it’s produced, so clean and green simply isn’t a requirement.

Likewise, the governor decided not to mention his proposal to build half a dozen or more new refineries along Montana’s Hi-Line that would turn Canadian tar sands into fuels while belching pollutants into our clean air. Even if you ignore the horrific environmental disruption necessary to produce the tar sands—and no one with a conscience should—there’s no ignoring the fact that refining tar sands produces even more pollution than conventional oils. Again, so much for clean and green.

Also unmentioned were plans to deal with the development boom hitting Montana’s western valleys and the associated impacts on land, air and water. Recent studies show we are losing the battle to maintain the quality of our world-famous blue-ribbon trout streams—but apparently keeping America’s rapacious gas tanks filled was deemed a more important issue.

In the end, Gov. Schweitzer’s State of the State address was a hot little pep talk which likely achieved its goals of making people feel good and posing Schweitzer as a visionary leader. Aside from what wasn’t mentioned, what it really contained was a significant number of promises that appear made to be broken—and broken, I fear, all too soon.

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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