Sparks Fly Between Candidates Over Energy

By Beacon Staff

When it comes to energy issues and natural resource development, Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his main Republican opponent, Roy Brown, can agree on one thing: Montana produces roughly 40 million tons of coal per year. But that’s about it, with Schweitzer crediting Democrats for bringing Montana’s coal production to that level in the 1970s and 1980s, while Brown looks south and wonders why Montana’s production remains so paltry compared to Wyoming.

Both Brown and Schweitzer passed through the Flathead recently for party fundraisers and stopped by the Beacon – separately of course – where the talk focused mainly on natural resource development. Should Schweitzer and Brown receive their party’s nomination, their criticism of each other’s energy policies and actions will continue through November.

While Brown charged Schweitzer with not doing enough to develop Montana’s natural resources, Schweitzer asserts that legislation he vetoed – and which Brown supported – would have compromised the governor’s ability to oppose coal-bed methane drilling north of Glacier National Park. Those issues are likely to play a crucial role in gubernatorial campaigns during an election year where Montanans face rising energy prices, national economic uncertainty, the resurrection of an education lawsuit against the state and concern over climate change.

Brown: Wyoming’s example
Brown, a Billings state senator and petroleum engineer who sold his oil-production company before entering politics, said part of the solution to the education funding standoff is to develop more natural resources, particularly coal, to bring in more tax revenues for schools. Brown was elected to four terms in the state House, and is serving his first term in the Senate. His proposal resembles a push Republicans have been making in the Legislature for years, comparing Montana’s coal production to Wyoming’s, which has smaller reserves but produces roughly 400 million tons per year.

“And their schools are some of the best in the nation; any time they have a school over 20 years old, they tear it down and build a state-of-the-art school. Their teachers are paid twice as much as ours are,” Brown said of Wyoming. “We could be doing very similar, but instead we are just talking about developing coal and not doing anything about it.”

An education coalition returned to court last month, charging that the state has not met its requirements to sufficiently fund schools, as it was ordered to do by a 2004 ruling. Brown anticipates endless challenges over education funding unless some way can be devised to give schools more money that isn’t at the expense of some other budget priority.

“The education community, I feel, is starting to realize that we can’t just sit here fighting over the same piece of pie and everybody wants a little bigger slice of the same pie,” Brown said. “We have to make the pie bigger, and the way to do that is through developing our natural resources, and that isn’t just coal and oil and gas, but also includes wind, the sun, biofuels.”

While many Republicans in the state house are gung-ho about developing fossil fuels, when asked how he could win over swing voters concerned about greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, Brown said the cost of implementing most of the 54 recommendations by Schweitzer’s Climate Change Advisory Committee would be too expensive for energy consumers.

“If we do all of the things that are in that climate change committee study, we’re going to wake up and our energy costs are going to be four to five times higher than what they are right now, so instead of a $100 gas bill for your home, it’s going to be $500,” Brown said. “If we completely step away from coal, which provides one half of the energy needs for this country, we are going to be faced with huge increases in our energy costs and the consumer will pay for them.”

Schweitzer: Look at the record

Schweitzer, however, fired back by describing how Montana’s coal production stalled beginning in 1989 with Schweitzer’s three Republican predecessors. A Whitefish farmer and soil scientist, Schweitzer went on to tout his first term as governor as one in which oil production has increased by 50 percent, and electricity generation capacity increased more “than the previous 16 years combined.” He then rattled off a list of his efforts to improve energy infrastructure throughout the state, through increasing pipeline capacity and the proposed construction of an energy transmission line between Great Falls and Lethbridge, Alberta, along with wind projects going up along that line and in Butte.

“Montana’s increasing our oil production at a faster rate than any state in the union,” Schweitzer said. “We’ve clearly increased energy production at the fastest rate in at least 20 years and, of course the previous 20 years, when Roy Brown and his cohorts were running the state, they didn’t increase electricity production. They didn’t increase oil production and they didn’t increase coal production.”

Schweitzer then pointed to a bill passed by the 2007 Legislature regarding coal-bed methane discharges in southeastern Montana that he vetoed, saying it would have profoundly impaired his ability to negotiate with British Columbia leaders regarding British Petroleum’s plan to drill for coal-bed methane along the North Fork of the Flathead River. Sen. Brown’s support of the bill, Schweitzer said, did not support the interests of the state.

Proposed by Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter, and passed by both the House and Senate, the bill would have allowed the discharge of salty water – the byproduct of coal-bed methane drilling – into unlined ponds. While the bill’s purpose was to provide a new source of drinking water for livestock, Schweitzer said it would have provided a thousand times more water than cattle in southeastern Montana actually need. And, Schweitzer added, signing that bill into law would have given him no moral authority to oppose BP’s plans to drill for gas in the Canadian Flathead.

“If you had a governor that allowed the Legislature to pass a bill that created the weakest regulations in America for coal-bed methane, how is it that you could have the same governor say to British Columbia, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to pump and dump salty water in Montana, but if you’re thinking about developing any of your energy in British Columbia, the answer is no,’” Schweitzer said. “Either the people that voted for it are not good at math, know nothing about natural resources, or they were using this to just eliminate all regulations for coal-bed methane operators in Montana – it’s one of the three.”

The sparring between Schweitzer and Brown this early in the campaign signals what their eventual debates are likely to resemble, on this particular topic. If anything, as the campaigns progress and the men refine their arguments, the attacks and rebuttals will only sharpen.

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