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Heating up: Large-scale energy development debate rages on


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The first month of Montana’s 2009 legislative session is gone and we’re finally getting a peek at what’s coming our way in the great energy debate. As expected, a slew of measures are being drafted, special committee hearings are ongoing and from the looks of it, science and the environment are of little concern as Senate Republicans prepare to launch a host of bad bills intended to do one thing—spur large-scale energy development at any cost.

To get an idea of the scope of what’s going on in the Legislature, one only has to read through the headlines of a single paper this week. Take this one, for instance: “Senate committee tables carbon sequestration bill.” In what may be one of the best examples of mass denial of reality, Senate Republicans effectively killed the measure drafted by Sen. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula. The bill would have empowered Montana to create guidelines for what could and should be done to store huge quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal-fired power plants or coal-related industrial operations underground. Carbon sequestration, as the process is known, is currently being conducted in a number of places around the globe, but questions continue to arise over the broad applicability of the process.

For one thing, the problem of long-term liability has yet to be defined. While it is certainly technically possible to pump mega-tons of carbon dioxide into the ground, who will ultimately be responsible should some unintended problems arise? Some of those problems could include pushing out existing groundwater, mixing with groundwater or eventual leaks back into the atmosphere over time. So, if an energy company pumps the gas underground, is it ultimately responsible forever? Unfortunately, Montana has already experienced far too many problems from hard rock mining that will require treatment “in perpetuity.” Likewise, we have experienced sudden bankruptcies of large polluters that then leave the continuous costs of treating the pollution up to the taxpayers. Do we want to start a second round of big mistakes from coal development before we’ve even cleaned up the messes from prior mining? Probably not.

Another question that begs an answer is defining who actually owns the underground “pore space.” Across Montana there are plenty of areas with split estates—where the surface owners do not own or control the mineral interests beneath their lands. Defining who actually owns that pore space, where the gas would be stored, is an essential first step in determining who will ultimately be liable.

Erickson’s bill would have directed the Board of Environmental Review to develop and adopt rules for carbon sequestration and define ownership and liability. Unfortunately, the Senate Republicans, dodging the tough questions on sequestration, killed the measure because they don’t believe in global climate change. “Until there is verifiable scientific evidence that CO2 is the culprit, the committee feels that we should proceed with caution,” said committee chairman Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby.

Just to give you an idea of how out-of-touch with reality Black and his fellow senators are on this issue, consider that, in the same edition of the paper, a major report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), warned that the earth is suffering “irreversible change” from CO2 already, and it will cause continued global climate change effects for the next 1,000 years—even if humans quit adding CO2 to the atmosphere immediately. As Kevin Trebarth, the head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research put it: “The policy relevance is clear: We need to act sooner…because by the time the public and policymakers really realize the changes are here it is far too late to do anything about it.” His warning is clear and apropos to Montana’s head-in-the-sand Republicans.

But while blindly ignoring the “verifiable scientific evidence” that already exists—and killing any efforts to deal with it—these same senators are holding special hearings and readying bills to speed up traditional energy development. In the crosshairs, unfortunately, are both public involvement and environmental protection. According to Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the real problems are those pesky environmentalists and the public who use the law and judicial system to “game the [permitting] process” to delay or halt large energy projects.

The goal of the informational hearings this week is to take testimony and craft bills to tip the scale in favor of energy development by reducing the public’s opportunity to challenge or appeal projects. Montanans have heard this same tune many times in the past under the rubric “streamlining.” Twenty-five years ago, in his effort to develop more coal, Gov. Ted Schwinden promised to cut the “red tape” associated with energy permitting. Every governor since then, including Schweitzer, has likewise sought to make it easier for energy companies to permit large industrial projects here—and the toll has been horrendous.

The Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), the state’s bedrock environmental protection law, was severely reduced in its scope by Republican-controlled legislatures in the mid- to late-’90s. It’s even worse for the Major Facility Siting Act, which once ensured that social and economic impacts of large industrial facilities and operations were addressed and mitigated. After all, it’s not just the smoke from the stack that impacts communities and individuals, it’s also the influx of people in often sparsely populated areas, the need for more schools, police and emergency services, road maintenance, and on and on. Yet, through a determined decade-long effort, Republicans who perceived such issues as roadblocks to development kicked them to the side.

The great coal debate has begun in the halls of the Capitol and nothing less than Montana’s future is at stake. We can either deal with the very real problems and impacts of large-scale energy development—or we can continue to ignore them and punish those who seek to protect Montana’s environment and communities. For now, the Senate Republicans’ course seems clear, and it’s completely wrong.

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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