If Montana is going to develop more of its wind, coal, oil and gas, it will need ways to move energy products beyond its borders, and a new state board or authority can help encourage new power lines and pipelines, supporters of the idea said Monday.
“It really doesn’t matter what fuel choice you prefer – coal, wind – it needs transmission,” said John Alke, a lawyer representing Montana-Dakota Utilities. “It’s become an all-important choice in fuel selection and site selection (for projects).” Alke and a host of other energy-industry lobbyists and developers testified Monday in favor of House Bill 114, by Rep. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, which would create a state energy “transmission and transportation authority.”
The authority, appointed by the governor, would help plan, analyze and coordinate placement and construction of power lines and pipelines to move energy produced in Montana to markets – mostly outside the state.
While Gov. Brian Schweitzer has been a vocal promoter of energy development in Montana, his office did not support the bill on Monday.
Evan Barrett, the governor’s top economic adviser, said Schweitzer agrees transmission lines and pipelines are “imperative” if Montana is to develop its energy resources.
Yet he told the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee that the governor isn’t convinced “another government structure” is needed to accomplish that goal.
“It’s the governor’s belief that while (transmission of power) is, in essence, serving kind of a public need, this is really a private function,” he said. “We don’t believe it’s the government’s role to finance these things.”
Barrett also said the Schweitzer administration has asked for funding of two new positions in the Department of Environmental Quality to work on energy transportation issues.
The House committee took no immediate action on HB114.
Olson said that while the measure provides some public funding for the authority, it would not be financing any power lines or pipelines.
The end users of the product would pay to build the facilities, he said. The authority would do what it could to bring together private parties and public agencies to speed up construction, he said.
Van Jamison, a wind-power developer from Helena, said that while project developers have access to power lines, it is a byzantine and potentially costly process to get on the current systems.
The state has no single person or office to help find ways to make it easier for developers, and is often unrepresented at regional meetings talking about how the transmission system can be upgraded or improved, Jamison said. An authority would fill that gap, he said.
Bill Pascoe, a consultant representing Great Northern Power Development, the largest private owner of coal in Montana, said Wyoming, North Dakota and Idaho already have established state authorities on transmission lines and pipelines.
Montana needs an authority to ensure that it won’t lose out on the competition for building power projects, he said.
Pascoe also said HB114 should be amended to give the authority a larger budget and the power to issue bonds that could help finance projects.
Lobbyists for two environmental groups testified against the bill, saying it’s not the job of state government to help coordinate projects for private industry. “We think this is nothing more than corporate welfare,” said Jeff Barber of the Montana Environmental Information Center.
By Mike Dennison
Lee State Bureau
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