The Glasgow Courier - Serving Proudly As The Voice Of Valley County Since 1913

By Patrick Burr
The Courier 

Clean Water Project Director Talks Keystone, Renewable Energy


In a broad field 45 miles from Billings, wind turbines churn, culling energy to be distributed throughout the region. Montana ranks 21st in the nation, according to the American Wind Energy Association, with 466 functioning wind turbines. These machines converted enough energy in 2014 to power 180,000 homes, representing 6.5 percent of all in-state electricity production.

“Wind is a viable, sustainable source of power,” said Derf Johnson, Clean Water Project Director and Staff Attorney for Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), “and is favorable when compared to its familiar alternatives.”

Among the alternatives to which Johnson refers stews the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the progression of which has been stymied. While the bill passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, President Obama’s February 2015 veto relegated it to a holding pattern.

Said the President: “Because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest -- including our security, safety, and environment -- it has earned my veto.”

On Nov. 2, TransCanada requested the U.S. to suspend the maligned permit review process, citing the desire to “allow time for certainty regarding [the route through Nebraska].” The initial petition was filed in September 2008; many expect the saga to stretch beyond January 2017, the end of Obama’s second term. Current expenditures hover around $2.5 billion. Should the pipeline be built, the projected minimum cost rises to $10 billion.

“The route in Nebraska has been uncertain for years,” Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, a vocal opponent of the project, told the Wall Street Journal. “The only difference now is TransCanada knows they are about to have their permit rejected, so they are scrambling.”

The pipeline would transport tar sands oil from Canada, crossing under the Missouri River in Northeast Montana and Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer en route to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

MEIC, Johnson says, was instrumental in the striking of a bill during the last Montana legislative session which would have allowed the state to enter agreements with native tribes and Canadian provinces, a crucial step in the project’s ultimate realization. The organization has also petitioned Senator Jon Tester on “numerous occasions.”

“We’ve been at odds with the Senator’s stance on the issue,” said Johnson. “The pipeline is not a good thing for Montana, and not a good thing for the U.S.” Sentiments like these are controversial in a community that has been selected as the site for worker camps of significant size.

Johnson implores citizens to sift through the well-worn pro-Keystone propaganda before deciding their position. “There’s the thought that it’ll be this jobs bonanza,” he said. “That’s a complete fallacy. The purpose of constructing a pipeline is to remove human involvement in the long-run.”

At most, he says, a handful of permanent jobs will remain after the construction is complete.

Johnson also notes the speciosity of the premise that the pipeline’s ultimate function would be to inject fuel into the American market, thus alleviating dependency on foreign sources. “Its purpose is to get tar sands oil to refineries,” he said. “The majority of it will be exported to the Pacific Rim and China. And even if it were the case that it would remain in-house, the U.S. is flooded with oil and natural gas. Keystone XL’s addition to the U.S. energy economy won’t bring down prices or cost at all.”

As a result, Johnson sees the vehement debate over the pipeline’s necessity as laughable. “It isn’t needed,” he said. “What we’re talking about here is a foreign company [TransCanada] using U.S. land to export their oil halfway across the world. That’s something that needs to be part of any logical Keystone discussion.

“As a nation,” he continued, we need to know the inherent problems with fossil fuel extraction and use. We need a path to cleaner energy. One way to do this is to say no to the dirtiest economic project in the world and the dirtiest fuel, tar sands, in the world, and focus on investing in alternatives which are not a detriment to our climate.”

A June 2014 MEIC and Sierra Club report estimated 4,000 jobs would emerge in Montana’s wind and solar energy markets over the next two decades. Kyla Maki, director of MEIC’s Clean Energy Program, noted the numbers as a conservative estimate, harkening to the ever-unpredictable nature of “eureka!” moments and the possibility of increased governmental support between now and the mid-2030s.

“The biggest barrier for clean energy right now,” said Johnson, “is the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying efforts and the attempt to stifle all competition. Wind is much cheaper than coal, dollar for dollar, and that’s not even taking into account the ecological, medical, and mining costs of the latter.”

Johnson says focusing on solar development and the phase retirement of fuel plants such as Colstrip 1 and 2, which spit forth a collective 15 million tons of carbon pollution annually, paves Montana’s road to a self-sufficient future. The EPA’s 2014 Clean Power Plan indicates that the state has the 2nd-highest wind potential in the nation, yet ranks only 21st in wind production.

“Research towards a hydrogen economy,” Johnson concludes, “would get us to an unbelievably healthy, efficient, emission-free place.”


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