The missing ink: Brian Schweitzer’s divided energy loyalties

Anyone who has ever criticized Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s energy policies can tell you it’s no fun to be on the receiving end of the wrath that follows. Nonetheless, a few brave souls and organizations continue to sound the alarm that Schweitzer’s “clean and green” proposals for massive coal development are anything but clean or green. This week, at the meeting of the Western Governors’ Conference, five governors signed a letter to Congress describing efforts by their states to reduce greenhouse gases and urging removal of federal barriers to their progress. But just as Congress considers a massive energy bill with billions in subsidies for highly controversial coal-to-liquids projects, guess whose signature was missing from the letter?

It would be hard to forget the rap we’ve been getting almost nonstop from our governor’s office for more than a year now.  Basically it’s that “we are the Saudi Arabia of coal,” and, by golly, we can make America energy-independent of “the sheiks, crooks and dictators” from whom we import oil to support our gross consumption habits simply by building enormous plants to turn dirty black coal into clean liquid fuels. Moreover, this will be good for the environment because the carbon dioxide that makes coal such a threat to the global environment can theoretically be captured, compressed under enormous pressure, and injected into the ground where it will sit complacently long into the future. So we are told.

This rosy scenario is further bolstered with the trotting out of dubious analyses showing billions in economic development, thousands of new jobs, millions in new tax receipts, and—this is the best one—Montana showcasing, and then selling, wonderful clean new coal technologies to the rest of the world (China and India, to be specific).

But when it comes to major policy initiatives from politicians up for re-election, prudence suggests that one look at more than just the sound bites. Science, for example, is good. And actions, as we all know, speak louder than words. On both fronts, questions about the real feasibility of the Schweitzer administration’s goals are now being justifiably raised.

Take this week’s editorial from The Boston Globe, for instance, which specifically targets efforts by coal-state officials to roll the long, black, coal-to-liquids train down a track greased with taxpayer funds. Titled “No subsidy for a filthy fuel,” the editorial gives a brief background on the development and use of liquefied coal by the Nazis in WWII and the $70 billion in government subsidies a recent MIT study estimated would be necessary to replace a mere 10 percent of national gas consumption with coal-based liquids. The Globe correctly describes liquefied coal as “a fuel that would generate about twice the carbon dioxide emissions of gasoline” and says “proposals for liquefied coal have become the unkillable Draculas of U.S. energy policy.”

While directly fingering coal-state Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, for his efforts to push the legislation, the column also points out that, in fact, the effort to liquefy coal is directly connected to the burgeoning U.S. military—specifically “a long-term contract to supply the Air Force with the alternative fuel.” So, despite the $549 billion budget for the Department of Defense next year (that’s a billion and a half spent every day to supposedly protect the world’s only remaining superpower), billions more are being sought from taxpayers—and diverted from other uses—to pay for the fuel to keep the war machine running.

So here we have it, laid out in a tidy package before us: Promote liquid coal as a “clean and green” solution to foreign fuel dependence, but keep it quiet that, in reality, this fuel isn’t for us, it’s for the military. And as anyone who has looked at the environmental record of the development of military-based technologies can tell you, it’s nothing short of horrific. Washington state’s Hanford nuclear facility comes to mind; having been rushed into production to manufacture weapons-grade isotopes, it will now continue to leak radioactive groundwater into the Columbia River for centuries to come.

Yet we are supposed to believe everything will be different this time around, and somehow the military will be held to stringent environmental standards. But those who have actually looked at the loopholes in military development and procurement protocols know you could fly a tank-carrying transport plane through them. Simply put, environmental exemptions for national security are the rule, not the exception. Should Montana become ground zero for military fuel production, the environmental protection mandates of our state constitution will mean less than the paper upon which they’re written.

Which brings us back to the Western Governors’ letter. “State and regional climate mitigation plans, in particular, have resulted in strong new goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions that are based on detailed public planning processes, with high levels of stakeholder participation and advanced technical analysis,” they note. Those goals “are consistent with climate stabilization needs and can be achieved through actions that not only reduce GHG emissions, but also generate billions of dollars in net economic savings, expand markets, create new jobs, reduce energy dependence, and provide many other benefits.” So far, “twenty states, representing 150 million Americans, have developed or are developing GHG emissions reduction goals consistent with these needs.”

In closing, Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Theodore Kulongoski of Oregon and Christine Gregoire of Washington urge Congress to “work with us to develop strong, smart and comprehensive federal climate change policy that incorporates effective roles for state and local governments.”

These are reasonable, sensible requests for positive actions to protect the future of our nation and planet. Embarrassingly, however, the missing ink at the bottom of the page belongs to one of the leading proponents of so-called clean and green coal development—Montana’s own Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

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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