Schweitzer Decries Inaction on Energy Legislation

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Friday that Congress’ failure to move energy legislation will slow investment in all types of coal projects — clean or dirty — but won’t slow mining for the state’s coal needed to supply current power plants.

The U.S. Senate recently dropped plans to pass a broad energy bill after it was clear there wouldn’t be enough votes to support a so-called-cap and trade proposal, or even a more limited approach that focused on utility carbon emissions. The plan was slammed by Republicans as a tax, and it made conservative Democrats uneasy.

Schweitzer, a Democrat, said he thinks the cap-and-trade plan was a very bad idea because it was unfair in the way it priced carbon, favoring some industries and projects over others.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a farmer and a Democrat, never embraced the plan. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus wants incentives for carbon capture and other technology to ensure a future for coal in energy.

Montana’s sole Republican in the delegation, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, loudly objected to the congressional offering.

“This is an issue that pits the interests of rural states against the power of urban ones,” Rehberg said Friday. “I’ll continue to stand firm against any energy tax that is designed to not only increase energy prices but destroy Montana jobs.”

But Schweitzer pointed out that he thinks the absence of any energy policy on carbon at all is going to chill development of expensive, long-term energy projects — particularly those powered by coal.

Schweitzer said wind projects in the state will continue to develop, but perhaps not as fast as if there were a price on carbon emissions.

“Things would move faster if we had a Congress that moved, but I don’t know that we have ever had a Congress that moved very fast,” Schweitzer said.

Schweitzer has been a leading advocate among governors for energy development, and used his position this past year as chairman of the Western Governor’s Association to champion energy development.

There has been little interest in building coal-fired power plants due to uncertainty over climate legislation, and Schweitzer said he expects those projects to stay on the back burner.

Schweitzer, who has tried to woo energy development of all kinds and has taken a lead among governors on the issue, said coal plants have a life measured in decades, and backers of such projects expect that at some point in the coming years carbon will be priced somehow. He said they won’t move — on new carbon sequestration or even simple coal-fired electricity plants — until it happens.

“I don’t see much new investment in American coal technology until there is certainty with carbon law,” Schweitzer said. “I think when there is certainty on CO2, no matter what the law, you will see a lot of energy projects go forward.”

Schweitzer said, however, that digging for coal like is planned in the Otter Creek coal tracts will continue to power existing coal plants. the deal is lucrative for state coffers.

Schweitzer said the fairest way to regulate carbon would be to put a price on just large-scale emissions, and then to put the money toward more energy research and not general federal spending.