Monday, November 21, 2005

Schweitzer's coal panacea gets front-page treatment in New York Times, DailyKos

Governor Schweitzer's innovative energy plan -- which we were among the first to trumpet back in July -- scores a front-page article in the New York Times today:

If the vast, empty plain of eastern Montana is the Saudi Arabia of coal, then Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a prairie populist with a bolo tie and an advanced degree in soil science, may be its Lawrence.

Rarely a day goes by that he does not lash out against the "sheiks, dictators, rats and crooks" who control the world oil supply or the people he calls their political handmaidens, "the best Congress that Big Oil can buy."

Governor Schweitzer, a Democrat, has a two-fisted idea for energy independence that he carries around with him. In one fist is a shank of Montana coal, black and hard. In the other fist is a vial of nearly odorless clear liquid - a synthetic fuel that came from the coal and could run cars, jets and trucks or heat homes without contributing to global warming or setting off a major fight with environmental groups, he said.

"Smell that," Mr. Schweitzer said, thrusting his vial of fuel under the noses of interested observers here in the capital, where he works in jeans with a border collie underfoot. "You hardly smell anything. This is a clean fuel, converted from coal by a chemical process. We can produce enough of this in Montana to power every American car for decades." ...

"I'm just a soil scientist trying to get people in Washington, D.C., to take the cotton out of their ears," Mr. Schweitzer said with somewhat practiced modesty. "But if we can change the world in Montana, why not try it?"

It's a fantastic article, and is being trumpeted on the front page of Daily Kos by Jerome a Paris, the editor of European Tribune. Jerome starts out with some pretty favorable comments on the article, but then begins asking the tough questions:

That's the major drawback of his plan. That 150,000b/d plant (which represents just 1% of imports, and even less of total consumption), apart form its price, will require about 2mt/y of coal - about 2% of Montana's current production, i.e. vast quantities of the stuff. That's why I would not tout CTL as the magic bullet. It's certainly one of the solutions that can be used to diversify gasoline/diesel sourcing, but it is unrealistic to expect it to provide more than a fraction of total demand. 20% of imports - 2.5 mb/d will require $120 billion of investment and a 30% increase in Montana's coal production, a worthy goal for the next 10 or 15 years, but unlikely to be reached without a major political push.

My answer: this reasoning is decidedly circular. What Schweitzer is proposing IS a "major political push" -- and he's got all the reins of power in Montana, the Executive and both Legislative houses, so why shouldn't he be able to pull it off? I simply don't see the logic in criticizing the idea because it needs political capital to succeed when that capital is already being provided by Schweitzer.

Jerome continues:

Governor Schweitzer has said all the right things on this topic, but we will need to hold him accountable for these promises, and make sure that the goal is not to get cheap gasoline, but to get clean gasoline, because the consequences will otherwise be pretty stark - for Montana grasslands, for the quality of air in the region, and for global warming.

But at least he is keeping energy up and center in the political debate, he is keeping the initiative with a smart proposal, and he is associating Democrats with a lot of positive concepts. We should encourage him to continue, so long as the "clean" part is not forgotten.

Here I agree with Jerome -- Schweitzer needs to enforce cleanliness regulations against the companies he invites to mine Montana for his panacea. But knowing Schweitzer, I don't think it's likely he will forget -- he's an environmentalist through and through. Again, I think this is a pretty moot point.

But hey -- I'm glad the ideas are finally out there, being discussed in national media and on national blogs. Mark my words: as I said in July, Schweitzer's coal panacea is going to revolutionize American energy, and maybe even be the Gov's ticket to national political office. Energy Secretary Schweitzer, anyone?


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