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Montana’s “Clean Coal” Governor

There’s a coal battle brewing in the great state of Montana and front and center in the fiasco is Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a good old-boy with an affinity for fossil fuels.

The latest trouble with Gov. Schweitzer dates back in 2009 when he and other members of the State Land Board, all Democrats, voted 4 to 1 to open up the rich coal tract of Otter Creek, an approximately 10,000-acre checkerboard of public lands, to development in Montana’s region of the Powder River Basin.  An estimated 572 million tons was auctioned off to Arch Coal despite its unpopularity. Currently the lease approved by the Land Board is open for public comment, but opponents fear the Democrats residing on the panel won’t listen to their concerns.

“The main beneficiaries of leasing Otter Creek coal won’t be coal miners or schools or the Northern Cheyenne or the residents of Powder River County,” wrote local residents Bill and Judy Musgrave in the Billings Gazette leading up to the Land Board vote. “It will be coal speculators and the proposed Tongue River Railroad.”

At the beginning of August the Land Board decided to delay its public hearings in response to a weeklong protest spearheaded by Rising Tide North America. They appeared to be frightened of the spectacle that would ensue. Even with the rescheduled public hearing, opponents of coal exports and the Otter Creek mine are still planning a sit-in in Helena beginning on August 13. The non-violent civil disobedience will take place between the offices of Governor Brian Schweitzer and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, both of whom are Land Board members.

It’s protests like these that Montana ought to get used to as long as the state continues to extract its vast coal deposits.

As of 2009, an estimated 74.6 billion tons of coal reserves existed in Montana, which is the largest recoverable coal reserves of any state in the country. In fact, nearly 7.5 percent of the world’s entire coal reserves reside in Big Sky country.

Denise Juneau, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction was the only Land Board member that didn’t take the bait that the coal money would be going to fund the schools she oversees. On the contrary, she argued, the land would benefit the public more if it were left untouched.

“We could sell every parcel of state land and log every tree on state lands, but we don’t,” said Juneau. “We don’t because we want to sustain Montana’s lands for future beneficial use … Of course there is [monetary] value in mining the coal. But there is also value in keeping Montana ‘Montana.'”

In late 2009 Great Northern Properties leased its rights to Arch Coal Inc. to mine 9,600 acres of land that is interspersed with the State’s Otter Creek parcels. The opening of these private reserves was a power play that forced the Land Board to consider opening its own public ands in the area.

In all, a total of 1.3 billion tons of coal will be opened for development, which equates to about 3,834 pounds of CO2 per ton of coal, or a total of 2.6 billion tons of CO2 if all coal is burned to produce electricity – 78 times the state’s annual output of CO2.

“We are disappointed they decided to stay with old, dirty energy instead of clean, sustainable energy of the future, but this isn’t over,” Jeanie Alderson, a Birney, Montana, rancher and co-chair of Northern Plains Resource Council’s Tongue River Railroad Task Force, said in regard to the Otter Creek deal. “We still maintain the entire process is flawed. There has been no overarching public process that includes a discussion of the environmental, economic, and social aspects and costs associated with leasing this coal.”

However, it is difficult to confront the real, burgeoning threat of climate change when Montana’s own leading Democrat, Governor Schweitzer, believes that coal can burn clean.

Dubbed the “Coal Cowboy” by CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Schweitzer has been everything but critical of the industry and is a vocal proponent of “coal-to-liquid” technology. While using coal to make fuel may reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, critics are unconvinced that coal-to-liquids could ever combat global warming.

“What they’re proposing is simply not allowable if we want to avoid the perils of unconstrained anthropogenic climate change,” said Pushker Karecha of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “The bottom line is that there’s one fatal flaw in their proposed [coal-to-liquids] process from a climate protection standpoint. It would allow liquid fuel CO2 emissions to continue increasing indefinitely.”

Schweitzer didn’t listen and has instead proposed a ridiculous $15 billion coal-to-liquids venture in southeastern Montana. The process, like the coal development in Otter Creek, would have required strip mining to bring the coal to the surface and then be burned to generate electricity for the coal-to-liquids refinery, which would in turn be used to run diesel engines for the intense strip mining project.

It’s an endless cycle of CO2 emissions, which some environmentalists called “Gov. Schweitzer’s Perpetual Pollution Machine.”

Schweitzer has made quite a name for himself in pro-coal energy circles, traveling around the country promoting “clean-coal” technology in speeches and presentations. The Montana governor has even appeared on several national television shows, even landing a prime-time spot at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 to promote his coal-intensive energy vision.

Many environmentalists are concerned that what President Bush was for oil, Governor Schweitzer could be for coal if his trajectory in the Democratic Party continues.

Speaking in Bismark, North Dakota, at an energy seminar, Schweitzer proclaimed that “clean-coal” technology would help generate billions in revenue for both Montana and North Dakota, not to mention the corporations that would be doing the digging.

“With the resurgence of the Democratic Party in the West, many Democrats are reluctant to openly criticize their leaders,” wrote Montanan Greg Gordon in High Country News about Schweitzer’s backward energy policies. “Unity, however, does not mean blind acceptance of misguided policies that will lead to economic and environmental disaster.”

Indeed, Schweitzer has worked hard to promote the coal industry in Montana, even helping to broker William Buffet’s purchasing of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railway, which serves as the main transportation means for coal mined in Montana. He’s also lauded the reopening of the Signal Hill mine near Broadview, Montana, which will become one of the largest in the state.

“This is a mine that will add 25 percent to the over all coal mining that we do in Montana,” stated Schweitzer at the mine’s reopening.

A portion of the coal mined in Montana will be shipped through West Coast ports over to the exploding Asian markets that are increasingly burning coal to produce energy, but are lower in supplies than the US.

For the climate change movement to succeed in halting exports to Asia, it seems vital that their fight sprouts in Montana’s capital to confront Governor Schweitzer and his pro-coal industry posturing.

Joshua Frank is author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, and of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, co-edited with Jeffrey St. Clair and published by AK Press. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank

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