[On Oct. 15, "Urserious" responded to a recent posting of mine by including a commentary made on PBS by UM Professor emeritus Tom Powers. In it Powers raises important questions about Max Baucus's loyalties. Powers also questions the assumption that oil and coal jobs are an important part of our state's economy.]
Last week Montana Senator Max Baucus appeared to side with Republicans and a handful of coal-state Democrats in opposition to the US Environmental Protection Agency using the authority that the US Supreme Court has said EPA has to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
Baucus was quoted as saying that the regulation of greenhouse gases was too important and complicated to trust to just a federal agency. Instead, that regulation should remain the business of the US Congress where different regional and industrial interests can be balanced. Congress, of course, has not been able to muster the votes to pass any climate protection legislation, and with Republicans expected to be significantly more powerful in Congress after the mid-term elections, there is little chance a greenhouse gas emission control bill will be produced by Congress any time soon. No EPA greenhouse gas regulation may effectively mean no greenhouse gas regulation at all for the indefinite future.
Because Baucus is a member of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, his apparent opposition to allowing EPA to adopt regulations controlling greenhouse gas emissions was big news in Washington DC. One of the Capitol's influential daily newsletters, Environment and Energy, explained Baucus' waffling on the regulation of greenhouse gases by saying: "Baucus is wary of efforts to limit carbon emissions, as coal mining, coal-fired electricity and oil refineries dominate his state.
It is true that Montana has lots of coal and continues to produce significant amounts of petroleum and natural gas. It is also true that a half-dozen large coal mines are operating in the state, shipping that coal to coal-fired generators across the nation. That coal mining also supports six coal-fired generators here in Montana including Colstrip's four generators. We also have oil refineries in Billings, Great Falls, and Laurel. We have high voltage transmission lines delivering the electricity we generate to the West Coast, a petroleum products pipeline stretching across much of the state connecting some of our refineries with the states to the west and a variety of natural gas pipelines crisscrossing the state. Clearly energy production, transformation, and transmission are a significant part of Montana's economy. But are we "dominated" by these energy industries?
That description, of course, is not just a shorthand way for Washington DC insiders to try to make sense out of why our representatives vote the way they do. It is also a description that increases the political power of those very fossil fuel sectors in Montana, giving them more leverage to either block or change any proposed greenhouse gas regulations or legislation. That, actually, is what Baucus meant by saying that regulation of greenhouse gases should be done in Congress where heavy emitters of greenhouse gases can better get their economic interests taken into account.
For that reason, it is important to investigate the extent to which Montana is actually economically "dependent" on coal mines, coal-fired electric generators, and oil refineries. The answer to that is that we have "little" and "shrinking" economic dependence on those energy industries. The Montana Coal Council tells us that in 2009 about 1,150 people were employed in coal mining in Montana. That sounds like a lot of jobs, but there were about 625,000 jobs in Montana in 2009. The coal mining jobs represented about one out of every 500 jobs, less than two-tenths of one percent of all jobs. In petroleum refining, we have about 1,100 jobs, about the same as in coal mining. If we look at electric generation, the 2002 and 2007 Economic Census indicate that the employment in electric generation was about 450, but about 150 of those jobs were associated with hydroelectric generation, leaving about 300 workers engaged in fossil fuel-based generation. Clearly that is even a smaller sliver of the total Montana economy, one out of every 2,000 jobs. If we add all of the coal mining, coal-fired electric generation, and petroleum refining jobs together, there are about 2,600 jobs associated with these energy sectors. That is, these sectors provide one out of every 250 Montana jobs or about four-tenths of one percent of total jobs.
To call this a "dominant" position in the Montana economy is more than a stretch, it is at the very limits of hyperbole. One can, of course, start using multipliers to inflate this number. But any reasonable multiplier would leave us accounting for less than two percent of the Montana's jobs. It might be better to be worrying more about the other 98 percent of jobs if we are really concerned about the future of the Montana economy.
Just as important, we could ask how many of the new jobs that have been created in Montana over the last 25 years were created in these energy sectors. Over the last quarter century, Montana added almost 220,000 jobs, over a 50 percent increase. During that time, employment in coal mining declined by over 300. Employment in coal-fired generation also appears to have declined as automation reduced the necessary work force. On the other hand, employment at our oil refineries expanded by 200. So overall, these three energy sectors lost a couple of hundred jobs while the over all economy was expanding dramatically. Just in health care, for instance, almost 30,000 new jobs were created, more than doubling that workforce.
It is important that we focus clearly on the economy we actually have and the sources of economic vitality that have actually been supporting the expansion of employment opportunities. Our continued fascination with the view through the economic rear-view mirror leads only to confusion and bad public economic policy that allows a tiny sliver of economic participants to distort public policy to protect their private interests at the expense of the rest of the population and the economy.
For the first time in 35 years, there is agreement between Montana and Canada to permanently forbid mining and exploration in a beautiful and wild area next to Glacier and Waterton Parks. All that is needed is 17 million dollars from Congress to seal the deal. Yet last week Baucus stated publicly, and incredibly, that the request for the appropriation "came in the wrong form". This claim merits serious examination. As far as I can tell, there is no such thing as a "form" for requesting federal money. When a state needs something from the federal government, the Congressman/Senator is supposed to bring it home. Plus, Baucus could be heard saying recently that he has been working very hard on this environmental issue for 35 years.
It is a very peculiar state of affairs that no doubt traces to the ego-bumping between Schweitzer and Baucus. Some activists on this issue hope perhaps Tester can do better. Nobody expects Rehberg to do anything, of course. The best part is that Max Baucus's staff continues to send out press releases describing Max as "America's most powerful senator."
The fish in the North Fork of the Flathead, which will be killed off by coal sludge if this deal falls apart, clearly do not understand that they need either a high-powered corporate fish lobbyist, or must write fish checks to the Baucus campaign, in order to see that their home is protected.
I got wind of something last week from a few enviros up in Whitefish and Polebridge, that I think is worth a mention.
It was that Sen. Ryan Zinke, the Republican Senator from Whitefish, is so pissed off that neither Tester, Baucus nor Schweitzer nor Rehberg can get their act together and get a final agreement with British Columbia to prevent coal mining on the North Fork of the Flathead River, that he is planning to introduce a bond measure in the legislature to seal the deal, and take the credit.
The issue with the North Fork is that the coal plots on the Canadian side are worth a bloody fortune, while those on the Montana side are not. So, while BC and Montana have struck a deal on a moratorium, it hinges on finding a way to compensate BC for about $17 million worth of sunken costs on their end. So we need to send over the border some federal or state cash, or perhaps some mineral rights.
The word on the street up in the Whitefish, where this issue looms extremely large, is that Zinke will introduce a bond measure in the state legislature to accomplish this. At the bottom of all of this is the filth and effluent and goo that would run off into the river and into the Montana Flathead valley if the Canadian mining were to go forward. Max has been talking about it for 30 years but has never actually done anything about it. Tester doesn't seem much engaged at all. Schweitzer got an MOU signed, but it's not more than a piece of paper that states desire and intent. The essential thing is money.
This move by Zinke would be brilliant. Zinke is a former special forces commander and otherwise a somewhat moderate Republican, often mentioned as a likely US Senate candidate. If he pulled off a deal with British Columbia where the Big Three Dems could not, he could possibly win the Flathead in a statewide election with 70 percent of the vote (the usual 60 plus a few hard-core conservation voters). That, with a respectable showing in Missoula as well (where the issue is also big), would make him formidable.
And beyond that, he'd be able to talk about how he got something done, something big and good. That's not something you don't often hear from a Republican.
Schweitzer is apparently seeking some kind of vengeance against political opponents, but if they refuse to write the letters he demands, the people he will actually be hurting by denying their fair share of federal stimulus money are his constituents, the voters of Montana - some of whom have supported him on various issues and some who have opposed him.
This is not a black-and-white world. It is a world of many shades of gray. And the welfare of our representative democracy depends on our freedom to disagree about and debate a whole range of issues.
Drop the silly demands that these elected leaders grovel in front of you, governor, and start practicing some statesmanship.
Critics fumed and local officials were dumbfounded Monday when Gov. Brian Schweitzer affirmed he'll tie the release of frozen state grants to local support for Otter Creek coal tract leases in southeastern Montana....
"I'm here today to say this: I haven't decided which projects and how much to cut," he said. "I can cut up to $2.1 million, (but) I believe our situation has improved a great deal, really because of that $85 million."
Schweitzer told a room of three dozen people that he wanted to see letters of support from community leaders, including the county commission, Missoula Mayor John Engen and state legislators, not only for the Big Flat Road project but for the use of coal money to pay for it.
"The potential revenue from the sale of Otter Creek coal might allow for your project/projects to be funded," Schweitzer said in a letter he signed at the end of his visit. "Please return a letter confirming that you 'support the use of coal money for the completion of your project/projects.'"
Wha--? Surely he's not saying he'll give stimulus funds only to those officials who write letters of support for coal...right?
The Missoulian also posted the actual letter the...er....Good Guv (I may have to find a new nickname) sent out to all and sundry...and it's much worse than the Missoulian made it out to be:
...You may have seen that the state might be getting a bonus payment of over $85 million from leasing Otter Creek coal. It's a good shot in the arm to our general fund balance sheet. While we're not quite fully into economic recovery, still, having these funds makes it appropriate to consider certain projects that have been on hold until our cash flow picture improved.
In order for us to proceed with funding please complete the following and send to my office a letter of support from local leaders and community members for one-time only state funding of your project/projects. The potential revenue from the sale of Otter Creek coal might allow for your project/projects to be funded. Please return a letter confirming that you "support the use of coal money for the completion of your project/projects."
Er...we're talking about grants for federal stimulus funds...right? Am I missing something? Can the...uh...Okay Gov...dangle this money as bait for community acceptance of his quixotic coal policy? Really? Was that money really intended be doled out to political supporters of the...er...Barely Satisfactory Gov...and his less-than-stellar - craven, you might even say - sell-out to coal interests?
What the f*ck?
Of course, I fully expect the letters to come pouring into his office...
When at its December 21, 2009, meeting the Land Board voted 4-1 to auction 1.3 billion tons of coal buried beneath the Otter Creek valley, it summarily ignored a landslide majority of testimony to the contrary. Over a hundred strong filled the meeting chambers at the Capitol that day requesting the Land Board save Otter Creek and keep the coal in the ground. In fact, the official public comment period on leasing Otter Creek coal ended with 9 of every 10 letters received rejecting the lease option.
The oppugning voices also condemned Otter Creek's parasite, the proposed Tongue River railroad. This thoroughfare, required to get the coal to market, must exercise eminent domain to cleave ranches and farms with a 121-mile stretch of track - each mile costing over $5 million and, if completed, wreaking disaster on the valley's water quality and irrigation, and threatening the spawning grounds of the endangered pallid sturgeon.
Fast-forward to February 8: Otter Creek's bid deadline closed quietly, without a single offer. But the lack of interest at 25 cents per ton didn't mean a lack of interest. DNRC knew this. The Governor knew this. And Arch Coal knew the state knew. And we knew that Arch knew the state knew. And somewhere Donald Rumsfeld was smiling. So DNRC wasted little time recommending the Land Board drop the minimum bid price 10 cents to better attract a suitor.
And the Land Board did just that, but not without holding another meeting on the newest proposal. This is, after all, a public process. And again, this time on February 16, the majority of oral and written testimony staunchly opposed leasing the land for a coal mine. And again the Land Board voted, this time 3-2 with A.G. Steve Bullock opposing, against public interest and in favor of sending a billion plus tons of carbon-heavy coal to out-of-state planet-warming power plants.
Fast-forward to today (or rewind to February 8?): The bid process is underway with a deadline Tuesday, March 16. Are bids expected? Not likely considering the Governor announced at February's meeting the new minimum bid price of 15 cents per ton was still more than double the state's appraised value of the coal. Will Arch Coal hold their cards for an even lower bid price? If so, they also run the risk of another Land Board member defecting and swinging a 3-2 vote against them. Or perhaps one of the five Democrats will motion to table the issue once and for all.
There is much at stake here: ranches, farms, a watershed, our health, our climate, and setting a course that promotes clean energy over filthy fossil fuels. With continued pressure on the three coal-friendly Land Board members, the next meeting on Thursday, March 18, could yield a different result. And Otter Creek, its ranches, farms, fish and wildlife could remain for now and future generations.
To help lay to rest this myopic endeavor you can attend and testify at the Land Board hearing this Thursday, March 18, beginning at 9 a.m. in room 137 of the Capitol building. You can also participate in one of two actions in Montana on Tuesday, March 16:
• In Missoulameet at the XXX's on the north end of Higgins Ave. at noon and march four blocks to the bridge to rally.
• In Billings rally at 1 p.m. at the Yellowstone Valley Courthouse Park
The so-called champion of alternative energy - what he called "clean and green" -- led the charge of the State Land Board in lowering the minimum bid price for the Otter Creek coal from 25 cents to 15 cents a ton.
"The policy deciding whether there will be coal-mining is not set in Helena, it is set in Washington, D.C.," he said shortly before the vote. "If this board votes not to lease coal at any price, there will still be development at Otter Creek."
So, if I understand this correctly: Policies emanating from Washington, DC, are good and must be followed?
Seems like this is the guy who has made a career of running against Washington, DC, often referring to it as a cesspool. After all, he proudly thumbed his nose at the feds over REAL ID and told the US government to shove it up its ass. He didn't like it and wasn't afraid to say so.
Hell. He was all over the national media. He basked for weeks in the glow of the spotlight even though it was a legislative resolution and he had no official role in it whatsoever. The resolution required no action on his part. None. A safe and sanitary act of defiance.
Observers erroneously concluded this bright star from the West was the real hero. Sorry. The hypocrite that he is was just acting. Most of his five years in office have been an act.
"Clean and green"? Foreget it. That was a sideshow and grist for the 2008 election cycle. No, for this guy, some national energy policies must be followed, now matter how ill-advised, no matter how dispicable. With the dirty corporate coal lobbyists leading the way, national energy policy ensures dirty coal is king. They have hundreds of millions to spend to fight any Congressional effort, no matter how lame, to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
And, the "Good Gov," as he is so reverently referred to in the postings on LiTW, did what he said he wouldn't do: Give our resourves away. Where he could have made a difference, he chose to lead by following corporate dogma and money.
Has he ever said he believes that coal contributes to climate change and global warming Don't think so. His escape is 'clean coal technology' and and a boondoggle known as carbon sequestration.
So, tell me, Governor, when an 80-car coal train passes through Helena, how many thousands of tons of carbon dioxide will be prevented because of clean coal technology? Or, sequestered by carbon sequesatration?
Like you, he knows the answer. None.
The Otter Creek episode is a tragedy that will unfold for decades and centuries to come. The December and February votes represent pandering to corporate interests at its very worst.
Off course, the issue was framed as one in support of economic development and job creation for eastern Montana. But, tell me: Is there an example of a coal-producing anywhere on this planet where coal mining produces prosperity in the region where the mining takes place?
Yes, it took two other votes to deliver the coup d grace. One Democrat led two others into the abyss. With a 66 percent approval rating, this guy can do no wrong. Or, so it seemed. Just imagine what would have happened had five Republicans occupied these statewide offices.
Oh, and one last thing: What happens when there are no bids at the 15 cent minimum bid? It is abundantly clear that the coal industry colluded not to bid at 25 cents. Since the December vote, it has had us by the testes.
In unison now, along with the the Schweitzer trio,"We want to show we can be just like Wyoming and give away our resources. Just name your price. We'll approve it. Trust us. If it doesn't all work out, we'll blame it on Washington, DC."
A divided state Land Board today voted to lower the minimum bid for leasing 570 million tons of state-owned coal in southeastern Montana's Otter Creek Valley, dropping the upfront payment from 25 cents per ton to 15 cents a ton.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, part of the board's 3-2 majority in favor of lowering the bid, told a packed hearing room at the Capitol that the 25-cent minimum set by the board in December was like the opening call at an auction, and that auctioneers usually lower the price when there is no takers....
State Auditor Monica Lindeen and Secretary of State Linda McCullough joined Schweitzer in supporting the new bid minimum.
Steve Bullock joined Denise Juneau in voting against the price cut.
Travel now to southeast Montana, far from the rich and famous of the bustling Flathead Valley to the Tongue River Valley. While there's a distinct lack of real estate activity, new subdivisions and upscale McMansions, the area is home to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and family ranches that span generations. This serene landscape of gently rolling hills stands in contrast to Glacier's rocky, snow-covered peaks and, unlike the Flathead's west slope, precipitation is sparse and welcome. As a result, both surface and groundwater are very precious commodities for agricultural and domestic use.
Why is water for Flathead Valley Montanans worth saving, but Tongue River Montanans get their scarce water sacrificed to coal mining? That's our dirty double standard. And why, after endlessly touting himself as "clean and green," would Schweitzer vote for mining coal that is likely going to Pacific Rim customers' dirty power plants?...
Honestly, I just don't understand why Schweitzer is so interested in developing Otter Creek coal. (McCullogh, on the other hand, always has been irrationally pro-resource-extraction, and Lindeen -- a team player - has Walt in her office.)
It can't be for political considerations: this is Schweitzer's last term. Unless he's eying a Senate seat - Baucus'? - his political future, if any, is on the federal level, in the Cabinet or as a presidential candidate. (Sure, Sec's of the Interior are usually pro-coal Westerners, but the Good Guv's already established himself on that front. Otter Creek won't help.) But...there's been absolutely no rumor of his running.
Does Schweitzer believe development of Otter Creek would be good for Montana? Possibly. It would bring money and jobs to the area - but resource extraction in no way is the best or even efficient means of bringing money into a community. Check out this Grist report on an MIT study on jobs. Investing in coal is one of the least efficient means of producing jobs. One of the best? Land restoration:
Conservation-investing in, for instance, the expansion of National Parks and other local, state, and federal recreation areas through, for instance, the Land and Water Conservation Fund-isn't too far behind. Some of the direct jobs in this sector include park rangers, park transportation workers, and other park personnel.
Relative to other spending options, investments in forests and parks tend to go towards wages rather than capital investments-providing the greatest benefit to communities, especially in economically difficult times (since Nature largely provides the materials that go into making a tree or a prairie grow for free, you don't need the same kind of capital as you do for, say, building a highway).
The actual jobs impact of forest investment is actually significantly greater than what's represented in the above table. A variety of other studies have analyzed job creation through conservation and found dramatic indirect effects. Expand a national park, national forest, river or local recreation area, and spending on and employment in outdoor recreation-everything from birdwatching and hiking to fishing and hunting - is dramatically increased.
Schweitzer's a smart guy. He knows this stuff. After all, Pat Williams has been talking about a "Restoration Economy" for some time.
There is a weird obsession in Montana with resource extraction, probably because it's so entwined with Montana's history and, consequently, its self-identity, where past is romanticized hopelessly beyond recognition. Just as a trust-fund hobby sheep farmer and real-estate developer wears cowboy boots to claim authenticity, so politcos adopt pro-coal positions to prove their connection to this unreal past.
Of course reality is different from it's romantic memory. After all, the biggest hero from the state's mining history is a man who was hung from a railroad trestle for demanding a living wage and safe working conditions for coal miners.
Mike Dennison's got a report on the Montana Republicans' launch of their new legislative campaign. There's not much surprising here; it's the same, stale lines they've been doling out for years: Democrats are for higher taxes, Republicans lower. Democrats want to increase the size of government, Republicans decrease it. Democrats are the party of "environmental obstructionism," Republicans...the corporate whores? Or something.
Of course, the political reality doesn't support these allegations. Under Democratic leadership, the state has done fairly well compared with the rest of the country. The state has run budget surpluses under its Democratic governor and the state has had sound fiscal management. A good response should be to remind folks (especially some of our own) that Democrats and leftys believe, not in bigger government, but better government. That we want to build a party for the people, not the plutocrats.
And, yes, I'm aware that the present state of the Democratic party falls short of those ideals.
And then there was this:
Senate Majority Leader Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, ripped into the Democratic-controlled Land Board, saying it "turned its back on responsible natural resource development" last month by voting to set overly high lease prices for state coal in eastern Montana's Otter Creek Valley.
"We're committed to developing our energy resources and putting Montanans back to work," he said.
Republicans will push against the Land Board, claiming they set the price too high on purpose to prevent the coal from being leased. After all, why not? They have a tendency to treat public land as corporate America's backyard, why not try to pressure the Land Board to essentially give away the state's coal tracts? It's good for teh childs! Well, not so much.
The Republicans are dutifully stepping up to play their part in the Otter Creek Kabuki. Man, don't you just hunger for someone, anyone in politics - Republican or Democrat - and just say this whole deal is bullsh*t, and have done with it?
This Dennison report on the Otter Creek coal tracts likely augurs how political wrangling will shape itself in the coming months and (hopefully) years:
The head of the company that owns more than half the coal in southeastern Montana's Otter Creek Valley said this week that he'll be surprised if anyone bids on state-owned coal there, because the Land Board probably set the minimum price too high.
Chuck Kerr, president of Great Northern Properties in Houston, also told the Gazette State Bureau that the state is asking a lot by requiring potential coal developers to pay an entire "bonus bid" up front.
"I think that's going to be a stretch," he said. "I think 25 cents (per ton) is too high. But we could be surprised."
Get it? Republicans will push against the Land Board, claiming they set the price too high on purpose to prevent the coal from being leased. After all, why not? They have a tendency to treat public land as corporate America's backyard, why not try to pressure the Land Board to essentially give away the state's coal tracts? It's good for teh childs! Well, not so much.
But then that's assuming the fuss and bother over Otter Creek coal isn't just Kabuki theater for the masses. Again, see George Ochenski's short history of the coal tracts: there are probably too many obstacles in the way of coal development in Otter Creek. Here's what he said then:
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.
But somehow the coal tracts have come to represent commitment to Montana's rural educational system. If, god forbid, you oppose development in Otter Creek, you hate children in Eastern Montana. It's as simple as that. And as an additional bonus for the Krayton Kernses of the world, by fighting for development in Otter Creek, you can stick it to those know-it-all scientists and their global warming plots to take over the world. You don't even have to develop the coal, all you need to do is make skittish Democrats vote for coal, too, and that's enough.
Not long ago, I read a story about five people who managed a piece of land for about a million shareholders. For a variety of reaons, most notably the owners needed money, the managers decided to lease the mineral rights.
Bear in mind, the shareholders were divided over the advisability of the lease.
Nonetheless, the five got together to strike an agreement regarding the terms of lease and the minimum price.
During the meeting, it was clear that one of the five opposed the lease. Without a great deal of discussion, it was also clear that three of the five seem to agree that a minimum bid of, let's say, $250,000.00 was acceptable, while the fifth said the minimum bid should be, say, $350,000.00.
As the lease was subject to a recorded vote, the outlyer made a motion: Lease the mineral rights for for $350,000.00 and not a penny less. None of the others liked the motion and did not second it. And, the proposal to lease for $350,000.00 died.
So, later, when the time came to vote on a motion to lease the rights for $250,000.00, what did the sponsor of the $350K motion do?
Personally, I can't see anyone actually digging for coal there anytime soon. George Ochenski explains the history of the Otter Creek tracts and the roadblocks that thus far have prohibited development - a needed, expensive, and unbuilt rail line and the coal's poor quality, to name two - and probably will indefinitely in as the future of coal looks bleak.
That's not to say the vote was disappointing. As Yellowstone Kelly pointed out, most of the votes were politically motivated, not practical. Sadly, they're caught up in the false conservative rhetoric that pits rural school children and blue collar workers against environmentalists; voting "yes" is necessary if you don't like makng good, bold policy suggestions that benefit both. Like advocating for a restoration economy, or spurring a renewable energy industry in the east, or providing state loans for home energy efficiency, the interest of which would go straight to schools...
The state Land Board will vote on Monday, December 22, to approve the Otter Creek coal tracts in southeastern Montana.
The background information, issues and elaborations have been outlined and expounded elsewhere. There is no need now to regurgitate all of it here.
Suffice it to say that the vote on Monday represents a choice about Montana's energy future.
Supporters argue a 'yes' vote is a vote for jobs and economic development in an economically depressed region. This position also references the fact that the revenues from the coal mining go to fund education.
Opponents of a 'yes' vote make the environmental/ stewardship arguments. Opponents supplement their position by referencing the preponderance of scientific data making the connection between coal combustion and elevated carbon and climate change and global warming.
Unfortunately, none of the compelling information affects the vote. It won't be about responsible public policy. It will be about politics, plain and simple.
Ezra Klein recently noted that 1 in 4 coal-state Democrats voted against the recent cap-and-trade bill in the House, and saw that as a reason for optimism:
Even so, that means only one-in-four of the coal state Democrats voted no. I'd like to see those results drilled down to coal-dependent districts, but still, that's quite a bit less parochial defection than one might imagine. Indeed, hailing from a coal state wasn't nearly as strong a predictor of a given representative's vote than whether his district voted for Barack Obama. While one in four Democrats in coal states voted against cap-and-trade, three in five Democrats in districts that McCain carried voted against the bill. Similarly, seven of the eight Republicans who voted for the bill hailed from districts that Obama carried.
Another way of putting this is that the evidence suggests that this vote was less about parochial interests than partisanship and ideology. Plenty of Democrats from coal states made the judgment that they could defend this legislation to their constituents.
What's more interesting is that a quarter of the coal state Dems voted against the bill even though it had already been massively watered down to reflect coal state interests. In its current state, Waxman-Markey has very little effect on coal state interests for at least the next decade, and possibly for more like 20 years. But even so, lots of coal state Dems voted against it despite the fact that passage is a major goal of the party leadership, it's a major goal of the president, and it's the right thing to do. I'd call that pretty damn parochial.
But it may not be pressure from the coal industry that decides this thing in the Senate; instead, according to a New York Times report, it may be agricultural interests that does it in. And consider this insight from public policy professor, Barry Rabe:
[Agriculture] organizations wield greater clout in the Senate, because members there must be protective of an entire state, rather than a small congressional district, he said. With a huge swath of the country containing farmland, the complaints raise the possibility that a group will gain the ear of a sympathetic member of Congress with the power to filibuster, he said.
Sens. Baucus and Tester were singled out as especially vulnerable to the beef industry on the topic.
I'd also assume that energy lobbies would enjoy the same advantages over their states' Senators, and that coal-state defection would be at a higher rate than 1-in-4. And given that Montana is both a coal and agricultural state...I'd say we're not going to see support from Jon and Max on a cap-and-trade bill...unless we let them know anything else would be unacceptable.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to act for the first time to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists blame for the warming of the planet, according to top Obama administration officials.
The decision, which most likely would play out in stages over a period of months, would have a profound impact on transportation, manufacturing costs and how utilities generate power. It could accelerate the progress of energy and climate change legislation in Congress and form a basis for the United States' negotiating position at United Nations climate talks set for December in Copenhagen.
This element of Obama's impending energy policy hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserves. If he does it right, it could be the secret weapon that kills new coal plants for good -- with far greater certainty than a middling cap-and-trade program. Obama has always said, to those who were listening closely, that he plans to prevent the construction of a new fleet of dirty coal plants, if not by carbon pricing then by other means. EPA regs are the other means. Beyond that, and perhaps even more importantly, EPA regs could hasten the demise of existing coal plants.
Now. Anybody want to bet Montana's future on coal? Time to start thinking up new strategies for bringing in state revenue for schools, folks.
There are a couple of coal-related stories in the Billings Gazette today.
First off is a reassurance from Australian-American Energy Co that its proposed coal-to-liquids plant on the Crow reservation is still going ahead as planned, despite the economy and recent death of tribal chairman, Carl Venne, "who was instrumental in the original deal."
I won't waste much space in this post on what I think about coal-to-liquid plants. If you want to know, justcheckout the archives. I don't like 'em. They're expensive, they suck up a lot of water, and they're not so good at reducing carbon emissions, even if you can sequester the carbon dioxide.
One question: where are the Aussies going to get $7 billion to produce a few million barrells of diesel?
And then there's the matter of carbon sequestration, which is bandying about in the legislature right now. In short, there appear to be two competing visions of how sequestration should take place in Montana. There's the Democratic proposal (HB 502, sponsored by Mike Phillips), which says the state owns the porous substratum of the earth where the carbon will be stored, and which sets the developers liability for that storage from 50 to 75 years. And there's the Republican proposal -- still in draft mode -- which doesn't define ownership of storage areas and sets developer liability to 10 years.
Legislative Democrats said Tuesday that they're pleased that some of their Republican brethren finally acknowledge that global warming exists and must be addressed.
Ah, yes, that's right! The "official" Montana GOP stance on global warming is that it's not happening. So...why write a bill about carbon sequestration? Of course, many Republicans' stance on global warming is rhetorical convenience for supporting big energy corporations and the resource extraction industry. And there's a new sherriff in town, and we're no doubt going to see some carbon emission regulations come stormin' in. It's not entirely inconsistent for Montana Republicans to draft a carbon sequestration bill that favors industry concerns over the community's welfare.
That is, the Republican sequestration bill smells. Doesn't define who owns the "pores," as the Gazette calls the carbon's future home? That probably means private property, which means no state revenue from the use of public land, but lots of money flowing into certain pockets. It'll probably mean higher prices for energy.
And a 10-year liability for developers on their underground storage of carbon emissions? H*ll, 75-year liability is too short. Remember, the carbon's supposed to stay underground in perpetuity -- or else it won't do any good. (And you wonder why I dislike the idea.) Ten years is nothing, gives developers a free license to do sloppy work, then have the state taxpayers (i.e., you and me) pay for their mistakes.
In short, these two characteristics of the Republcians' bill fits so seamlessly into the old adage, "privatize the profits and socialize the losses," it's almost cliche.
On the heels of the news that the Highwood coal-burning electric plant was being scrapped, came news of yet another Montana-based coal scheme, along comes news that an Australian company wants to build a $375-million coal plant in southeastern Montana that would make "high-efficiency coal and synthetic crude oil." The idea is to produce coal that burns about 10 percent cleaner, etc & co.
While it's technically possible to capture the carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired plants and sequester the gas underground, the cost and energy involved to do so is "so overwhelming it doesn't end up as being logical," Running said Tuesday. He was in Helena to lecture on the effects of climate change to Montana.
Running also had this to say about the warming deniers:
"I think there are some well-funded professional deniers who are following the tobacco and cancer lobbies' model, in a broad sense," Running said. "They continue to say that in the broad sense, all the data isn't in. But in reality it is in and no climate scientist comes to any different conclusion. The world is warming up."
Which makes the news of Montana Republican whining about the Highwood plant "failure" all the more irritating. I mean...why? There'll still be a plant; only it'll burn natural gas augmented by wind generation. That still means jobs. That still means money coming into the community. And it also means cleaner emissions and less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Though burning any fossil fuel is less than desirable.)
So, money and jobs...less pollution...less CO2...What's the friggin' deal? What's this obsession with coal? It's...weird.
The Crow have announced a deal to build a coal liquefaction plant and to start mining the coal on their land.
The Crow Tribe struck an agreement Thursday with an Australian company's subsidiary to pursue a $7 billion plant to convert coal into liquid fuels, which would be among the first such projects in the nation.
Capping months of negotiations, the Crow Legislature ratified a 50-year development agreement with Australian-American Energy Co., a subsidiary of Australian Energy Co.
The Many Stars coal-to-liquids plant initially would produce 50,000 barrels a day of diesel and other fuels. Construction would begin in several years, and coal for the project would come from a mine yet to be developed by the tribe on the reservation, Crow leaders said.
$7 billion is a lot -- and the story estimates as much as $1 billion a year in revenues to the tribe once the plant is built.
Still, there are problems with coal liquefaction -- carbon dioxide created in the process and inevitable problems with large-scale mining. The Crow have announced plans to mitigate at least one of those issues:
Hoping to defuse opposition, tribal leaders said the Many Stars plant would be built to capture 95 percent of the carbon dioxide it produces. That gas would be stored in underground geologic formations or sold to the oil industry, which pumps carbon dioxide into aging oil wells to squeeze additional production out of them.
My understanding of the technical issues here is dodgy at best, but I'm not sure that 95% capture is really feasible. Maybe it will be some day.
My understanding is that coal-to-gas also requires large quantities of water. Where will those come from? No idea.
Still, big money -- and $7 billion is big money -- doesn't typically chase waterfalls.
One of the common arguments heard against developing alternative energy sources and the infrastructure to properly exploit it is that it would government interference in the marketplace, and it would cost money.
That's certainly the gist of a recent WSJ op-ed comparing Obama's and McCain's energy policies. Of course, the op-ed willfully ignored McCain's actual record on energy issues. He's advocated the federal gas tax holiday and using government money to build nuclear power plants.
As David Roberts writes over at Gristmill, McCain's "opposition to government interference in the market is selective at best, opportunistic at worst," and labels his energy policy as "a largely cinematic series of poses."
Framing the comparison as one between more or less government is a red herring. Governments are deeply and historically involved in energy markets. They set regulatory and legal parameters. They establish tax rates. They build infrastructure. They conduct diplomacy, negotiate treaties, and invade Middle Eastern countries.
Governments always and already shape energy markets. The question is how to do it better. Obama has introduced a credible, detailed approach. He evinces commitment to thinking the problem through, interest in the details, and a level of seriousness that is nowhere evident in McCain. That's the relevant comparison.
And government already dedicates huge amounts of money to infrastructure - specifically, oil-economy-based infrastructure, like roads, signals, signs, curbs, gutters, parking spaces, parking garages, sidewalks, bridges, crosswalks, paint, police and ambulance service, rest stops, bike lanes, fencing, and on- and off-ramps. And that's just a portion of the infrastructure we build to support our oil-burning economy. Oh, and toss on the economic and human costs of the Iraq war to that total.
The point here is that, yes, it will cost money. But it already costs money. The key is, how can we best spend it, in a way that decreases pollution, makes energy production sustainable, and consumption cheaper?