HELENA — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock unveiled a blueprint Tuesday for what he calls a “balanced and responsible energy future” and called for new legislation and funding to promote wind and solar power.
The move could help placate an environmental base wary of the governor’s overtures to coal interests as he seeks re-election.
Bullock presented his 26-page proposal during a Capitol news conference. The governor said his proposal was merely a broad outline of his priorities: developing the state’s capacity to produce power from wind, solar and electricity-churning dams, and expanding the infrastructure that could boost the Montana’s ability to transmit — and sell — surplus energy to utilities across the Northwest.
“Done right, we can drive economic growth,” Bullock said, “We can improve our traditional base of energy generation while sparking a new generation of clean technology business.”
He could not immediately say how much his program would cost.
Energy has become one of several key issues in the governor’s race, and a politically vexing one for Bullock. The Democratic governor is under pressure by environmentalists, who are concerned about soot-producing coal-fired plants, to more aggressively promote clean energy. At the same time, unions and communities dependent on the coal industry for jobs are pushing the governor for his continued support, as he seeks their votes.
“Is there some political calculus in this? Perhaps,” said Jeff Fox, the Montana policy manager for Renewable Northwest. “But I think Gov. Bullock realizes the changing energy landscape and he recognizes the economic opportunity in the state from wind energy development.”
Montana has the capacity to produce 665 megawatts of electricity from wind energy at any given moment. Windmill farms currently under development could generate another 2,000 megawatts.
Bullock’s Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, questioned the timing of the announcement, saying it took Bullock four years to come up with a plan.
At a pro-coal rally in Billings, Gianforte called on the federal government to lift a moratorium on new coal leases and do more to support communities that depend on the coal industry. “We’re facing troubling economic time here in Montana,” he said in a statement.
While other environmental groups said they were still analyzing the governor’s proposal, spokespeople for key organizations said they were generally pleased.
“The governor is realizing that there are dramatic changes occurring in the energy economy. It’s helpful to have this kind of discussion, recognizing that clean energy will be taking a predominant role,” said Derf Johnson, a program director and attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center, which has been critical of the governor’s pro-coal policies.
Assuming he wins a second term, Bullock plans to ask the Legislature in January to establish and fund a central entity charged with developing the state’s energy policies and identifying potential economic markets for the energy Montana produces.
The governor is also proposing to work with tribal communities to develop solar power across Indian Country, as well as partner with the private sector to finance energy projects.
Bullock’s plan did not put a price tag on most of his proposals, although he is proposing a $5 million revolving fund for energy conservation projects that would require approval by the 2017 Legislature.