Energy Key Issue in Schweitzer’s Election Bid

By Beacon Staff

ROUNDUP – Gov. Brian Schweitzer has established himself as the P.T. Barnum of Montana’s energy resources, coaxing corporations to tap the state’s huge reserves of fossil fuels even as he touts the environmental advantages of wind power and capturing greenhouse gases from power plants.

The Democratic chief executive has been walking a fine line, drawing criticism from Republicans for not doing enough and from environmentalists for going too far, particularly in his advocacy for coal.

But at the same time, energy has carried him onto the national stage as he delivered a rousing attack on Sen. John McCain’s energy policies at the Democratic National Convention.

“I’m doing the legwork, hustling up business,” Schweitzer said in a recent interview. “Whether we’re talking about wind energy, oil, gas, coal, transmission systems — it’s all the same. You’ve got to go out and you’ve got to work at it.”

Schweitzer’s activity on the issue will work in his favor as he heads into a November election against Republican state Sen. Roy Brown of Billings, a former oil executive, said University of Montana political analyst James Lopach.

“All Brown can say is that if ‘I am governor, I’ll do what he’s doing but do it better,'” Lopach said. “That’s the ‘New Democrat’ in Schweitzer, co-opting those arguments from the right and making those arguments his own.”

Since Schweitzer took office in 2005, natural gas production in Montana is up 20 percent and coal production 8 percent. New turbines are going up at the state’s largest wind farm, in Judith Gap, and at a second wind farm near Shelby.

In rural southeast Montana, the Crow tribe recently inked a deal with an Australian company’s subsidiary for a $7 billion plant to convert coal to liquid fuels. Company executives credited Schweitzer with piquing their interest in the state, after he talked up Montana’s 120 billion tons of coal at an industry conference last year in New York.

However, state records show Montana’s oil production tapering off at about 8 percent a year. It peaked in 2006, before some drilling rigs in eastern Montana were relocated to work several major oil discoveries in North Dakota.

Schweitzer’s GOP challenger has seized upon the oil decline to back his criticisms of the governor.

Brown, who spent three decades in the oil business, including eight years with Marathon Oil, accused the governor of being “all talk and no action,” by failing to lower tax and regulatory barriers that could discourage companies from doing business in the state.

“He doesn’t care if the rhetoric matches the reality,” Brown said. “He’s created an environment that makes it more friendly to go anywhere else.”

How much credit Schweitzer deserves for the state’s increased energy output is open to debate.

Economists and industry representatives say high energy prices are the main factors driving increased development. Also, some projects that Schweitzer had pushed — including a $1.5 billion coal-to-liquid-fuel plant at a Roundup mine — eventually fizzled.

Environmentalists have blasted Schweitzer for putting too much effort into coal projects that could increase greenhouse gas emissions. The Roundup mine is investing $450 million into producing coal for Midwest power plants that do not capture carbon dioxide — something Schweitzer has said is essential to dealing with climate change.

“There are some things we flat out don’t agree with him on,” said Theresa Keaveny, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters.

Still, there appears to be little risk of Schweitzer alienating environmentalists altogether, since they are unlikely to support Brown. Keaveny said she had “grave concerns” about Brown’s record as a legislator.

Defending his support of the Roundup project, Schweitzer said it will replace coal now being mined in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

“I can’t change everything that happens in the world, but you give me an opportunity to steal a little business from Wyoming, I’m in, baby,” he said.

Bud Clinch with the Montana Coal Council said Schweitzer’s promotion of Montana’s fossil fuels was positive, but unlikely to have much sway over companies with projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We have a huge reputation here as being a tough place to do business,” said Clinch, who directed the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation under two Republican administrations. “All of the governor’s cheerleading about coal doesn’t make those things go away.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.