Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Welcome Montana!

I have been writing each state ten at a time asking someone there to agree to be my occasional contact. Mainly I am looking for a monthly up-date like "Who's running, what's ballot access status, any issues being headlined, what's going on in local chapters". If the person who's the contact doesn't know, a simple "Don't know" is enough, but more info is better, of course.

Well, Paul Stephens puts out what looks like one of the best e-newsletters I have ever seen. In the latest issue he invites readers to visit here and at Chlorophyll and at Green Commons He also included an essay on What a local (city/county) energy policy looks like The essay itself is here for you to read by simply clicking the "Read more!" link...

-Paul Stephens

What would a Green local (city/county) energy policy look like?

The big news for Great Falls and Cascade County is the construction of a 250 MW coal-fired generating plant which is, by now, pretty much a sure thing. Although I've been against this ever since it was first proposed as "Resource 89" by Montana Power in the early 1980's, we haven't been able to mobilize enough opposition to it, either locally, state-wide, or nationally.

The reasons for this are the usual ones, primarily the lack of alternative information and expertise. Current thinking by the city government is pretty much limited to the following topics:

The plant is going to be built. How can the city of Great Falls participate? What can we do to make sure that we benefit from it? How can we persuade the people building it (mainly a rural electric co-op) to build it here? How can we make an inherently dirty and inefficient global-warming facility palatable to the environmental community?

These are the questions which our city government asked, and attempted to answer. The new administration is obviously thinking along similar lines. A series of public forums are scheduled to sell the idea of the power plant to the people (as if any but a few "fanatical" environmentalists are opposed to it!). One occurred last week, but I decided not to attend. (I tend to lose my temper and make a fool of myself at such events). The deck has been stacked, millions of dollars have already been spent, and the City of Great Falls is already a major partner in this enterprise. We will own about 1/5 of the power plant, and much of our local consumption of electricity will be available at lower costs than we are paying, now.

The problem, for me, and anyone else who opposes this corporate-state-fascist model of public institution-building and economic development is that we already have our own local electric generation facilities, and they burn no coal or other fossil fuels. They generate electricity for a small fraction of the cost of this coal-fired plant -- especially if we include all the wider social costs of pollution, depletion, and global warming. And, there is a boom in wind-generated electricity which is finally reaching us here in Montana. If it was a wind farm the co-op was building, I would be entirely in favor of it. Besides, there are already five hydro-electric "run of the river" dams in Cascade County which straddle the Great Falls of the Missouri, and they were originally built or planned by our city government to make us "the Electric City" and provide for our local needs.

A couple of them were actually built by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM) to provide electricity for their electrolytic copper refinery sited here - for precisely that reason. It was once the largest such refinery in the world.

Montana Power Company was a spin-off of Anaconda, and consolidated the city-owned dams with the Anaconda generating capacity. MPC also built or took over other hydro plants around the state, and later built several coal-fired generating plants. Still, Montana Power never controlled more than half the electric and natural gas business in the state, since there were strong co-ops using cheap federal power from the dam-building binges of the 1930's through the 1960's. Fort Peck, Canyon Ferry, Hungry Horse, Yellowtail, and Libby Dams are huge, and dwarf the Montana Power hydro resources.

Because of this federal "competition" and regulation, Montana Power (or some of its stockholders and board members) decided they wanted to get out of the electricity generating and distribution business, and even though they were strictly regulated according to an established "book value" of the company, they were able to change the laws and sell all of their assets to the highest bidders at some "market price," even though they had always been protected as a regulated monopoly from market forces.

As predicted, this selling of their assets at roughly double their book value resulted in a doubling of the price of electricity to consumers. Montana Power also owned extensive coal and natural gas fields, and sold them to Canadian companies or PPL, which bought most of the generating facilities, both coal and hydro. (In fact, it has been alleged that PPL engineered the whole dismantling of Montana Power, in order to obtain its non-nuclear generating assets, as PPL faces the de-commissioning of some 19 nuclear power plants in the eastern United States, including, I believe, Three Mile Island).

Some of us fought this takeover and self-destruction of Montana Power every step of the way. What I remember most is testifying at the many public hearings which accompanied this process, and seeing Randy Gray, Peggy Beltrone, Eve Franklin, and other local "boosters" being all in favor of it. Will they at least admit that they were wrong, and that the "environmental lobby" had it entirely right? (Peggy Beltrone has done so, to some extent, but we're still waiting for Randy and Eve to join us on this).

This is why we are so vehement against this coal-fired plant. Global warming is proceeding apace. We saw its consequences just a few months ago in Hurricane Katrina, and that is just a small preview of what we can look forward to in decades ahead. Not only do we not need a coal-fired generating plant near Great Falls. We don't need one, anywhere. And those which presently exist need to be gradually phased out or shut down. (See George Monbiot's and Amy Lovins' articles, below).

A year or so ago, when these issues were being discussed in the Montana Legislature, we mentioned that at the least, any new coal-fired generation should replace older plants at a 2-1 build-down schedule, i.e., for every megawatt of new coal-fired generation, 2 megawatts of old, dirty, inefficient generation should have to be shut down. That would be a minimal standard for attempting to limit the effects of global warming. Instead of that, the Legislature punished Great Falls for its prior support for de-regulation and the Montana Power debacle by refusing to pass a bill authorizing municipal and other public power authorities, which the Great Falls delegation promoted as a means of participating in the co-op coal-fired plant.

Now, we have a governor who is promoting all-out development of "clean coal," including reviving the WWII Nazi technology of "synfuels" -- converting coal into methane, gasoline and diesel fuel. (The Carter administration also promoted this, we might recall). This is the dirtiest, costliest, and least efficient energy strategy imaginable. (The Nazis only did it because they were fighting a war, and had no other sources for petroleum).

Apparently, Governor Schweitzer has never heard of global warming, either, and having made his personal fortune off of Saudi and Libyan oil money, he doesn't want to hear about global warming or Oil Imperialism, now. But we all felt good helping New Orleans, didn't we? Hopefully, the taxpayers (if not our elected officials) understand that any effort spent rebuilding or restoring coastal cities in a hurricane zone is a total waste of money, so long as we continue to burn gasoline and coal so irresponsibly.

So, what should we do, here in Cascade County, Montana, with less than 100,000 people? What can we do, here and now, to save the world from an environmental catastrophe?

I know what we should do. We should immediately pull out of the coal-fired generating deal, and forbid them from building it in Cascade County. That would be the rational, humane, and statesmanlike decision. And we should condemn the dams and coal-fired generating plants bought by PPL, and take over the former, refunding them whatever they paid for them (minus back taxes, penalties, and windfall profits).. Great Falls can buy the local dams at a pro-rated cost, and create a municipal power company which distributes the power generated here in Cascade County.

What is more absurd than shipping our local hydro-power to Pennsylvania or California, while building a coal-fired plant for ourselves? I can't think of anything more ridiculous than that.

If our civic leaders need a framework of understanding which is quite independent of me and the Green Party, but which supports all the same conclusions, I have a good one. The Rocky Mountain Institute of Snowmass, Colorado, has been working on these issues since the 1970's, and has developed practical, business-like solutions for all of our energy needs and problems.


I was searching their site and downloading their newsletters recently, and came across the following program designed expressly for energy planning in regional communities -- cities, counties, or even smaller divisions -- neighborhoods. It is called the Community Energy Opportunity Finder, and had anyone here thought to use it, we could have avoided this whole mess we're in with stolen dams and the threat of accelerated global warming and economic ruination because of fossil fuel consumption.

You can read about this in the RMI newsletter at


The live site which is available to anyone who wants to be a community resource planner is at

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