A Dem Darling’s Love Affair With Coal

Montana governor Brian Schweitzer is pro-gun, pro-choice, and pro-mining. Can he win the West again without losing the liberals?


Since winning the election in 2004, Montana governor Brian Schweitzer has been a darling of the liberal blogosphere. An independent-minded pro-choice, pro-gun rancher, he embodies the resurgence of the Democratic Party in the West, and at one point was rumored to be a possible VP pick. But in his home state, Schweitzer is becoming better known for another policy: He’s a leading advocate of the nation’s dirtiest fuel. In a state said to have Saudi Arabia-sized reserves of coal, it’s politically risky at best for any governor to push for such a dramatic rise in mining, risking both increased greenhouse emissions and a reversal of decades-old environmental protections.

Coal is the unloved stepchild of the energy family. It is messy to extract, expensive to transport, and produces huge volumes of greenhouse gases—far more per unit of energy than other fuels like natural gas and even petroleum. But coal provides half the nation’s electricity, and more than one-third of all US coal is dug from a string of enormous strip mines stretching along the east side of Wyoming—a fact that has some Montanans jealous. “This governor is very aggressive on clean coal,” says Evan Barrett, the governor’s economic policy adviser.

The fact that Montana’s vast coal reserves—about twice the size of Wyoming’s—sit largely untouched under the high plains is one of the environmental movement’s early success stories. Stung by the devastation left from decades of copper and hard rock mining, Montana in the 1970s began levying high taxes on mining companies. Wyoming encouraged the industry, and generated a $4 billion trust fund that is now being used to pay for school construction and educational improvements.

“I look at the way they invest that extra money in Wyoming with envy, sure,” admits Kendall Van Dyk, a Democratic state representative from Billings who works for Trout Unlimited, an environmental organization. Van Dyk says he’s worried about what strip-mining could do to the environment (and, consequently, tourism) in Montana. But, he adds, “I don’t believe we can or should remove coal from the country’s energy portfolio.” The state is now permitting a major expansion of a mine at Bull Mountain, which by itself is expected to increase the state’s output by about 35 percent. It is also preparing to sell off some coal reserves under state land, and there are proposals for new rail lines to further accelerate mining development.

Part of the motivation for mining Montana’s coal is price: $130-a-barrel oil has sent up the cost of other fuels. High-quality northern Appalachia coal, for instance, has traded recently at more than $140 a ton, compared with less than $30 five years ago. Yet coal is only competitive as long as the environmental costs aren’t factored in. If Congress were to establish either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, the cost of burning it could sharply increase—one reason why many utilities have postponed or abandoned plans for new coal-fired power plants.

Barrett says Gov. Schweitzer believes Montana’s coal should be transformed into diesel fuel or used at new “clean coal” power plants that he hopes will be built in the future—though none have been proposed yet, and many experts believe that zero-emission commercial plants are decades away. Until then, Montana’s coal will be burned the old-fashioned way; Barrett says that, while Schweitzer’s aim was to only use “clean” methods near the mines, coal shipped out of state would be “technology neutral”—in other words, Montana would wash its hands of it.

Schweitzer’s policy has soured some environmentalists, who note that mine expansion will foul both the air and good ranching land for a short-term boost in tax revenues. But, notes Beth Kaeding, chairwoman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, the only way to survive as a Democrat in a red state may be to offer something to everyone. Schweitzer may have angered some Democrats with his mining talk, but he has mitigated that by pushing for more wind energy and his efforts to limit coal-bed methane wells. “Schweitzer has to walk a fine line and what he’s done has made him very popular in the state in general,” Kaeding says. And, notes Denver-based political consultant Rick Ridder, Schweitzer’s reelection this year is so important to national party leaders eager to build a base in the West that few have complained about his coal program.

“We’re at another decision point, like we were in the ’70s,” says Michael Gustafson, an energy and resources investor who is planning to finance a new rail line to facilitate the coal expansion. If everything works out, he adds, Montana could double its output of coal in a decade. “It’s all about capturing that opportunity right now.”

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