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Keeping Montana “Montana”

By Joshua Frank this morning on truthout:

Montana’s “Clean-Coal” Governor’s Climate Change Blunder

(Image: Troy Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Tracy Russo, ambimb, luiznavarro)

For the climate change movement to succeed in 2010, it seems vital that their fight ought to make its way to Montana’s capital in Helena to confront Governor Schweitzer and his pro-coal industry posturing.

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.

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

Difficult indeed.

Oro y Plata y Coal

I guess I don’t remember the big celebration, but in 2008 Montana surpassed Texas to become the 5th largest coal producing state in the Union. We also rank third in the nation in number of craft breweries per capita although I don’t know if there’s a connection. Mining is now such a big contributor to our economy that it provides 7% of our gross state product. Of course health care provides 9% and is expected to grow to 19% by 2020. Retail trade is about 10%, but hey, coal money if free. As long as you don’t include the human costs.

A West Virginia University study found that coal mining provides more than $8 billion to the West Virginia economy.  Of course they also found that it costs the state just over $50 billion for the 1,736 to 2,889 in “excess annual deaths in mining areas“. The conclusion? “The human cost of the
Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits.
” But of course people are cheap and, did I mention, coal money is free?

Disregarding Governor Schweitzer’s incoherent argument that if we don’t mine Otter Creek coal, we will loose our entire white bread supply, I think it may be time to rethink some state policies. In 2007, Schweitzer wrote a letter to eight Western governors and Canadian premiers to say that “Montana wishes to become a full partner of the Western Climate Initiative“. Your governor said “I have been hard at work for several years promoting nationally the importance of moving America too a new energy economy.” Evidently that hard work now includes mining as much filthy coal just as fast as we can. Among the accomplishments cited by the governor were,

  • Economic incentives for the development of low-carbon energy strategies, signed into law in 2007.
  • The formation of a state Climate Change Advisory Council to study ways in which the state can reduce emissions.
  • The adoption of a renewable portfolio standard that sets a target of 15% renewable energy by 2015, signed into law in 2005.
  • A state government energy efficiency initiative targeting a 20% reduction by 2010.

I think it would only be approriate for Governor Schweitzer to send a letter of apology to the Western leaders once the Otter Creek coal is sold. The addendum to his 2007 letter might go something like this;

Sorry Guys,

We thought it over and it looks like Montana is going to have to renege on all that clean energy rhetoric that I spewed a couple of years ago. You see, Montana has decided to sell a billion tons of some of the worst quality coal you can imagine. That coal will add around a couple billion more tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. It looks now like we will be responsible for killing thousands of your citizens and destroying the health and welfare of people around the world. We would really, really, like to make the world a better place to live, but we will get several million dollars for our coal. We feel that we are being forced to take this money to save America’s white bread industry. Of course you can expect that we will use most, if not all of that money, to clean up the mess made by the gigantic coal mines in southeastern Montana, but if there is any money left over, you can be sure that we will donate a couple of million to the rest of you who will be suffering the consequences of our decision.


Brian Schweitzer, Governor, The Saudi Arabia of Coal.

p.s. If you guys come up with any other keen ideas like the Western Climate Initiative, be sure to let me know.

Colorado school trust fund to drop by $21 million after coal production decline

DENVER (AP) — A drop in coal production is part of the reason Colorado’s school land trust is expected to decline by $21 million by June. The Denver Post reports that the falling revenues are forcing the State Land Board to reevaluate how [much] the trust gets in revenue. The trust fund has relied on mineral revenues in the last decade and that has become about 80 percent of its source of revenue…

Nothing to see here. Move along.

As expected, the State Land Board just voted 4-1 to lease the Otter Creek coal tracts. After a lively public comment period that ran more than ten to one against leasing, the vote fell pretty much the way everyone said it would. The sole No vote came from Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction, citing the harm we are doing to future generations. Her vote is telling since Montana schools are supposed to be the primary beneficiary of the coal money.

There was a lot of talk about “fiduciary responsibility” and likely a lot of drooling among the board members. Most of the board members stated loudly and often that there would be NO state subsidies for the Tongue River Railroad. I don’t really see that as a factor that would stop the line from being built if the coal is mined. The benefit of the rail line is too great for the coal companies. Secretary of State Linda McCulloch proposed the lone amendment upping the minimum bonus bid from $0.10 to $0.25 per ton. The amendment also says that all money raised by the bonus bid will go  directly to schools and that the legislature is not allowed to offset or reduce the bid money with reductions in money for schools from the general fund. I suspect that the legislature will have something to say about that. They also placed a 45-day limit on the bid so that they will know the outcome by the Feb. meeting.

There are still several steps left before the coal can be mined, but those steps also have to be approved by the same folks who just voted to accept a $150 million bribe from Arch Coal. It’s not time to give up yet however, on stopping the mines. Many good reasons were brought up by commenters on why the mining should not proceed to the permit stage. There will be ample opportunity at each stage for Montanans to keep pounding on our state leaders to help them see the light. We refuse to give up 20,000 acres of Montana, the Tongue River Valley and our children’s health without a fight.

Otter Creek and Utter Rhetoric

Just a quick reminder. The State Land Board meets tomorrow at 9am in Helena to decide the fate of the state portion of the Otter Creek coal tracts. If you don’t have anything in particular to do, the meeting will be broadcast live on the internet. The fate of Otter Creek is late on the agenda, but agendas change.

A big tip of the Bugle fedora to 22 Democratic state lawmakers who wrote to the Land Board to refute a letter last week by 14 Republicans claiming that global warming is just “rhetoric” and urging the Board to “develop our vast coal treasure”. The Dems countered that,

“While everyone is entitled to an opinion, there is only one set of facts. The facts are clear: Climate change is real, the pace of change is quickening, and the effects are increasingly widespread, disastrous and destined to spread across the landscape with great indifference to the impacts on humanity.”

“Burning 575 million tons of coal from the Otter Creek Valley in existing power plants would result in emission of carbon-dioxide statewide,” the Democratic lawmakers said. “A billion tons of carbon-dioxide is an enormous amount that would contribute to environmental problems for decades to come.

It’s refreshing to see that at least some in the legislature retain a hold on their sanity.

Also, a mighty thumbs up to Mike Dennison for pointing out that, “Otter Creek revenue may not increase funding for schools” as has been claimed by some mining proponents.

“Here’s how the funding streams work, on leased state minerals and mine development:
The company that leases the Otter Creek coal would pay a “bonus bid” into a fund that goes directly to public schools next year, probably at least $57 million. However, that amount will be offset by a reduction in money budgeted for schools from the state’s general fund. The end result is a $57 million windfall for the state’s general fund. Schools get the same amount of state money that the 2009 Legislature authorized.”

No matter how many millions Montana gets from leasing the Otter Creek coal, funding for schools still has to go through a legislature that doesn’t believe we should have public schools and that the money could be better spent saving guns and fetuses. If you haven’t sent an opinion on Otter Creek to the Land Board yet, you still have today to let them know that this is a really, really stupid thing to do.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer — (406) 444-3111, governor@mt.gov

Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau — In-State Toll-Free 1-888-231-9393, Local (406) 444-3095 OPISupt@mt.gov

Attorney General Steve Bullock – (406) 444-2026 contact doj@mt.gov

State Auditor Monica Lindeen – (406) 444-2040 mlindeen@mt.gov

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch – (406) 444-2034 sos.mt.gov

Otter Creek; Buried Treasure or Sleeping Dog?

It was Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister to King George I of Britain who said “Let sleeping dogs lie” in reference to the American colonies. Better to walk softly than risk getting bit. He also said that, “Every man has his price“. It seems that fourteen Montana republicans have found their price in the Otter Creek coal tracts.

A letter to the State Land Board by fourteen eastern Montana legislators authored by Rep. Tom McGillvray of Billings says, “It is time to stop leaving our treasure buried in the ground!” Appropriately enough, all fourteen are Republican state legislators. They believe that the Land Board should ignore warnings that burning the more than 1 billion tons of coal will accelerate global warming during the very time that the world is trying to find ways to reduce the disastrous effects of burning carbon. Of course, being true conservatives, the gang of fourteen don’t believe in science or the evidence of change in their own state. ““I just have serious doubt, based on the scientists out there who are disputing that fact. I don’t think it’s a given, settled science.” McGillvray states in the letter. For republicans, it’s always about the money. Ignore the fact that we will strip mine 20,000 acres of Montana. Ignore that we will destroy the Tongue River Valley and steal the land and livelihood of our neighbors farming and ranching along the river with the Tongue River Railroad. Pay no attention to the fact that impacts of coal pollutants fall disproportionately on children, contributing to decreased lung development,  asthma, increases in infant mortality, reduced IQ and mental retardation. Who cares how many people we kill or what harm we do to the planet when, “The economic impact of developing the Otter Creek coal tracts and the resulting tax revenue that will provide funding for the future well-being of the state of Montana is unprecedented.” It’s all about the money.

I won’t go into the science of climate change. No matter what Tom McGillvray and the gang of fourteen say, the science is settled. The EPA website along with thousands of reputable scientists worldwide say,

The global temperature record shows an average warming of about 1.3°F (0.74ºC) over the past century. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. Within the past 30 years, the rate of warming across the globe has been approximately three times greater than the rate over the last 100 years. Past climate information suggests the warmth of the last half century is unusual in at least the previous 1,300 years in the Northern Hemisphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that warming of the Earth’s climate system is now “unequivocal” (i.e., “definite”).

The Bugle has covered the Otter Creek many times in the past. I do however agree with one phrase in the letter, “It is time for action… ” It’s time to let the State Land Board know that now is not the time for Montana to be contemplating pouring more than a billion tons of the worlds most polluting energy source into the market. The human costs are too great and the returns too small. The Board will meet next week to decide on leasing our share of the low quality coal from Otter Creek. Contact members of the Land Board and let them know that now is the time to let sleeping dogs [and coal] lie.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer — (406) 444-3111, governor@mt.gov

Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau — In-State Toll-Free 1-888-231-9393, Local (406) 444-3095 OPISupt@mt.gov

Attorney General Steve Bullock – (406) 444-2026 contact doj@mt.gov

State Auditor Monica Lindeen – (406) 444-2040 mlindeen@mt.gov

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch – (406) 444-2034 sos.mt.gov

Clean Coal, Black Lungs

If we were to manage to remove every milligram of CO2 from coal plant emissions, coal would still be one of the most deadly substances on earth. In 1969, Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which set coal-dust standards for mines designed to reduce the incidence of black lung disease in U.S. mines. Since that time, Republican adminstrations have fought to get government out of business and reduce the regulatory burden on industry. Regulators reduced inspections and monitoring, mines reduced their workforces, increased the length of work shifts, introduced machinery that creates more dust and increased production. Workers are cheap.

graphic from Wall Street Journal

Today, 9% of American miners with more than 25 years in the mines test positive for black lung disease. That number is up 5% from the 1990s. Incidence of the disease has been increasing for decades. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,

Black lung accounts for more deaths than do mine accidents, including explosions and cave-ins. More than 10,000 miners have died from the disease during the past decade, compared with fewer than 400 from mine accidents.

The federal government has paid out more than $44 billion in compensation for miners totally disabled by black lung since 1970, according to the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs.

No matter how many billions of dollars the federal government pumps into cleaning up the image of Big Coal and chasing the fantasy of CCS, coal is an environmental nightmare and a vicious killer.

China coal mine blast death toll jumps to 87
Inspector Killed, 3 Injured at Alabama Coal Mine
Mine Blast Kills 19 in Turkey
Remembering the Kingston, Tenn., coal-ash disaster

Children For Coal, let’s trade

There is a very sincere opinion piece in the Billings Gazette yesterday by Dave Puyear, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association listing the benefits to education from leasing the Otter Creek coal tracts. He argues that leasing the tracts will provide an estimated $57 million in bonus payments to the state, millions in royalties and will create Montana jobs. There have been some serious doubts raised about the revenue numbers used to justify the leases, but for now let’s not talk money.

We all know that education funding in Montana is a mess. In 2004, a district judge found that Montana is violating its own constitution by failing to adequately fund public schools. The state pumped millions more into state schools, but the issue is not yet resolved. The state provides only a little over 60% of school funding. Only about 10% of school funding comes from state trust lands like the Otter Creek tracts. The rest of the funding comes primarily from property taxes, along with a little federal money. We spend over a billion dollars a year educating Montana children. Trust lands generated about $85 million this fiscal year. A few million dollars from selling Otter Creek coal will not significantly affect funding for education in Montana.

Let’s look at some of the real costs of mining, transporting and burning over a billion tons of poor quality coal. A recent study concluded that coal emissions contribute to 10,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. Burning coal is our number one source of air pollution. Each pound of coal produces about 2.5 pounds of CO2. Burning fossil fuels causes thousands of asthma attacks, respiratory disease, heart attacks, and premature deaths in the U.S. each year. Children, the very ones we seek to help, are the most severely affected by particulate emissions from power plants. Another study found that,

  • Fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants cuts short the lives of nearly 24,000 people each year, including 2800 from lung cancer.
  • The average number of life-years lost by individuals dying prematurely from exposure to particulate matter is 14 years.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer each year from asthma attacks, cardiac problems, and respiratory problems associated with fine particles from power plants. These illnesses result in tens of thousands of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and lost work days each year.
  • Power plant pollution is responsible for 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks per year.

Mining and burning the coal will require millions of gallons of water a year. Burning coal emits CO2, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and other toxic pollution. Heavy metals stored in coal ash at the plants pollutes groundwater and drinking water sources. Mining coal causes massive environmental devastation. 20,000 acres of Montana would be strip mined to dig up the Otter Creek coal reserves. Coal mining kills thousands of miners worldwide each year. Selling the Otter Creek coal will mean that your neighbors farming and ranching in the Tongue River valley will have their land condemned and stolen by developers for the proposed rail line. Sediment loads will increase in the Tongue River. The Montana Environmental Quality Council report saysThe Tongue River Railroad project, which will have a permanent, irreversible impact on tens  thousands of acres of the most pristine land in Montana, is in clear violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).” Just the air and noise pollution from hauling thousands of rail cars full of coal per day (mostly from Wyoming) up and down the Tongue River valley would be a disaster.

Jobs? Maybe a few. Coal mining has become much more mechanized in recent years requiring fewer actual miners. Mountain top removal mining uses very few people, mostly just gigantic machines. This year for the first time, the number of jobs in wind energy exceeded those in coal mining.

Yes, it is the job of the state trust lands to provide for the funding of education.  The law requires us to manage those lands for the benefit of education “while considering environmental factors and protecting the future income-generating capacity of the land.” Are we really considering environmental factors and protecting the trust lands by scraping off the top of our mountains and polluting the planet for future generations of our children? The human cost of burning coal is much more than we would ever get from leasing Otter Creek. It’s not just about the money. I hope we are better than that.

Contact the members of the State Land Board before their Dec. 21 meeting and express your opinion on leasing Otter Creek coal.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer — (406) 444-3111, governor@mt.gov

Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau — In-State Toll-Free 1-888-231-9393, Local (406) 444-3095 OPISupt@mt.gov

Attorney General Steve Bullock – (406) 444-2026 contact doj@mt.gov

State Auditor Monica Lindeen – (406) 444-2040 mlindeen@mt.gov

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch – (406) 444-2034 sos.mt.gov

Running away from Otter Creek

There have been several articles about Otter Creek and coal in recent days that bear mention. Nobel laureate and UM climate specialist Steve Running and retired UM economist Tom Power addressed members of the State Land Board on Tuesday on the foolhardiness of selling Otter Creek coal. Running “didn’t mince words” according to the Missoulian. “Are we going to burn another billion tons of coal, or aren’t we?” “That, to me, is where all this global theory (on climate change) comes right back down to this kind of decision-making. Here we are in Montana making a real-life decision that is exactly this decision multiplied worldwide.

Tom Power “also urged the Land Board to demand a more detailed appraisal of the Otter Creek coal, analyzing coal markets more closely. Power said Otter Creek’s high-sodium coal may very well compete with existing Montana coal mines, hurting revenue streams from those mines.”

In another telling commentary in the Great Falls Tribune yesterday, Wally McRae, Montana poet and philosopher extrondiaire, who ranches near the Otter Creek tracts, sees a double standard over our outrage to any proposed coal development in the headwaters of the Flathead River and our opposite reaction to the same development occurring along Otter Creek. “Any similar development east of Billings — however disruptive to the sociology, culture, envi­ronment and long-term eco­nomic viability – is met with great enthusiasm.

If the State Land Board leases the Otter Creek Coal at a sub­sidy rate, the savings to the developers will finance the Tongue River Railroad, a private company, which will then use federal condemnation under eminent domain to take our land, thus fulfilling one of the goals of the North Central Power Study. No problem. After all, its east of Billings where things don’t count.

Montana DEQ on Tuesday, declared that they will propose new CO2 limits in Montana. In response to a recent EPA finding that global warming pollution endangered the health and welfare of Americans and must be reduced, DEQ said that they will propose that the Board of Environmental Review adopt the EPA-recommend­ed threshold of 25,000 tons per year, regulating any facility that emits at least 25,000 tons of CO2 per year.

EPA has cocked the hammer on Congress to do something about greehouse gases and do it soon or EPA will begin regulation under their authority by the Clean Air Act. At the same time, Montana is proposing for sale, an additional two billion tons of the dirtiest fuel known to man. Coal is responsible for more than 50% of all U.S. CO2 emissions. Montana already produces 44 million tons of coal per year and we ship 2/3 of that out of state. Great Northern Properties, who own half of the Otter Creek reserves, believes that they can market the coal overseas creating no competition or problems for Montana coal producers. “According to the Governor’s Climate Change Advisory Com­mittee, Montana’s 2010 CO2 emissions are expected to be 49.8 million tons. The state’s eight coal-fired power plants account for about half of that amount,”

The world is meeting in Copenhagen this week to try to agree on some kind of plan for reducing global CO2 emissions before it is too late. Many believe that it may be too late already. Meanwhile, in Montana, we want to increase our output of the worlds most polluting fuel all for a few dollars that the legislature will spend in one session. We are totally absorbed with worry about leaving our children with an increased debt load rather than worrying whether or not they will inherit a planet that is fit to live on. Is this really the direction we want to go? Please contact the State Land Board. They will decide on Dec. 21 whether or not to lease another 600 million tons of coal from the Otter Creek tracts. Don’t leave our children with this legacy.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer — (406) 444-3111, governor@mt.gov

Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau — In-State Toll-Free 1-888-231-9393, Local (406) 444-3095 OPISupt@mt.gov

Attorney General Steve Bullock – (406) 444-2026 contact doj@mt.gov

State Auditor Monica Lindeen – (406) 444-2040 mlindeen@mt.gov

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch – (406) 444-2034 sos.mt.gov

Subsidizing carbon pollution

Does this make any sense? A proposed coal-gasification plant in Indiana would capture it’s CO2 output and sell it to a big oil company who would build a pipeline costing more than a billion dollars to pipe the gas to the Gulf of Mexico to be used to force oil out of depleted oil wells. Under cap and trade policies, taxpayers would pay the coal plant for capturing CO2 which is actually used to produce more CO2 from more dirty fuel.

First off, a study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) found that fuel from gasification plants would produce about twice the amount of greenhouse gases as oil without carbon sequestration. With sequestration, the greenhouse gas output would be about the same as oil. So, we are using our dirtiest fuel to produce more of our second dirtiest fuel both of which would be burned to increase greenhouse gas output. The only way the plant can become feasible is with massive investments of tax money. A spokesman for the project “said he hopes to obtain the federal government’s promise to pay off $1.87 billion in debt should the plant fail.” Gas from the plant would have to sell for about $7.50 per therm (100,000 BTU). Current market price is $3.79 per therm. A similar Indiana plant, under construction just upped it’s building cost estimate to about $2.5 billion from original estimates of $1.3-$1.6 billion and is expected to rise further. “Duke’s Indiana customers have been expected to see about an 18 percent rate hike to pay for the project, which is receiving more than $460 million in government tax incentives. But that rate increase doesn’t reflect the latest cost increases.” The plant by itself won’t produce enough CO2 to support the pipeline, so they have to get at least one more plant to buy into the project.

There isn’t enough coal currently being mined to support large gasification efforts. The NAS report found that “The U.S. transportation sector consumes 14 million barrels of oil per day. If coal mining activities in the U.S. increase by 50 percent – an additional 580 million tons of coal mined each year – up to 3 million barrels of fuel per day could be produced. To achieve this, two or three new coal-to-fuel plants would need to be built each year over the next 20 years” Costs of fuels produced by gasification could be competitive with current fuel costs only if the costs of carbon sequestration and pollution isn’t added in. It costs about a third more in power to sequester CO2. It only becomes anywhere near economically feasible if the gases are secondarily used to produce oil from depleted fields. Capturing CO2 to produce more CO2. That doesn’t pass the smell test.

This is just another example of using massive infusions of public money to support coal technologies that have never been proven and may never be economical. Have we come to the point where using more coal to produce more oil is a good idea? Why do we keep subsidizing this crazy stuff and skimping on funding for renewables and conservation?

Another ace for A.C.E.S

Moving Montana away from dirty extractive energy production will not only help the earth, it will help Montanans. A new study by a team of researchers at the University of California, using a state-of-the-art forecasting model predicts that “comprehensive clean energy and climate policies would create jobs, increase consumers’ income, and strengthen the U.S. economy as a whole.

For Montana, the model predicts that we will experience a baseline employment increase of 76,000 jobs between 2010 and 2020. On top of those numbers, policies implemented under cap and trade policies such as those set forth in the American Clean Energy and Security Act or the Senate Clean Energy and American Power Act would create an additional 5,000 to 13,000 new jobs. We could see an increase of $0.1 to $0.5 billion in Montana’s GDP over and above growth without the legislation. Comparisons of a “moderate efficiency case” and a “high efficiency case” showed that the bills would lead to an increase in real household income in Montana of $599 to $1,736 per year more than without clean energy legislation. An earlier study by EPA found that the cost of such legislation nationwide would be around $100 per household on average. Sounds like a pretty good tradeoff to me.

The new study reveals that states like Montana will actually tend to benefit more than others due to our higher energy costs,

Contrary to what is commonly assumed, comprehensive national climate policy does not benefit the coasts at the expense of the heartland states. In fact, heartland states will gain more by reducing imported fossil fuel dependence because they are generally spending a higher proportion of their income on this low employment, high price risk supply chain. Demand side policies make a bigger difference for more carbon-dependent states, and carbon reduction opportunities represent riper and lower hanging fruit.

Implementation of energy efficiencies and cleaner power helps Montana because “energy efficiency reduces import dependence and the costs for transportation, heating, electricity, etc., saving households and businesses money — money they can spend on domestic goods and services, which will create jobs for Americans.” There are a lot of things I don’t like about these bills. Industry has had way too much input on the legislation and a lot of money will be wasted to support coal and oil, but we are running out of time to address critical climate issues and we need a national clean energy policy sooner rather than later.