Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s coal development plans didn’t attract a lot of love Wednesday in a banquet room full of wildlife biologists.
Evan Barrett, the Democratic governor’s chief economic development officer, outlined the plans at the annual meeting of the Wildlife Conservation Society, detailing for about 150 people a vision of seven big wind farms, giant methanol plants, five coal-powered electrical plants and a huge grid of electrical wires to gather the juice and carry it to distant markets in California and Arizona.
Dan Pletscher, head of the wildlife biology program at the University of Montana, was in the crowd.
“I thought to myself, ‘You’re going to do what to this state?'” Pletscher said in a later talk.
Others were equally dubious, especially after hearing from Alberta and Wyoming biologists about the widespread problems created by major energy development in those places.
In Wyoming – which produces more British thermal units than any other state and exports most of them – about 25 percent of the state lies in current or future gas fields, said Dan Stroud, of Wyoming Game and Fish.
There are 59,000 gas wells in that state now, he said, and the number will keep growing for the foreseeable future.
Each well also needs roads, powerlines and pipelines, he said, and that effects dozens of sensitive wildlife species in a variety of ways.
The number of wells in the Pinedale area, a sensitive big game migratory pathway, will increase between 220 and 600 percent, he said.
In Alberta, woodland caribou, elk and grizzly bears suffer as a result of increased energy development, researchers have found.
Barrett maintained that Montana can do things differently, that it can develop its abundant coal fields and maintain a high quality of life.
“Do we want to become Wyoming?” he asked. “Absolutely not.”
The Schweitzer administration wants to foster ethanol and other biofuels, as well as wind farms, but the big money is in clean-coal technology, he pointed out.
One proposed coal-to-liquid fuel plant near Roundup, which would have low emissions, would provide at least 1,700 direct jobs, he said, while a 50-million-gallon ethanol plant would provide about 50 jobs.
He said he’d like to see five comparable coal plants in Montana and the administration is working on a legislative package that would help rural communities deal with the impacts such development would bring.
Helen Waller, an activist who farms near Circle, said the governor’s plans remind her of similar ideas that arose after the energy crunch of the 1970s.
“That transformed a timid homemaker and mother into something resembling a cornered badger,” Waller said.
Now she feels a similar fire about Schweitzer’s plans, which could put a coal plant near her home.
“I felt like the governor had declared war on us and we will respond in a similar fashion,” she said.
T.O. Smith, comprehensive fish and wildlife coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the combination of residential development in western Montana and energy development in the east constitutes “the biggest issue we’re going to face in our careers” as biologists.
At least 150,000 acres in Montana have been leased for energy development in the past three months, he said.
“It’s a pretty grim picture when you look at it,” he said.
He outlined a new FWP policy that dedicates $100,000 to helping biologists around the state advise local planning and water districts that deal with both sprawl and energy projects.
“FWP will do all we can to help with our science and expertise,” he said.
Montana needs a new model that consciously aims to protect wildlife and its habitat in advance of development, Smith said.
“Wyoming had something special,” he said. “We still have it.”
There was a consensus in the room that more energy development is coming, and that it will bring major changes.
In Wyoming, nobody sat down in advance and figured out what the impacts would be.
“It’s like a fast-moving train and it’s kind of hard to repair while it’s moving,” Stroud said. “We’ve tried to slow things down and it hasn’t worked.”
By Scott McMillion, Chronicle Staff Writer
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding