Senator John Walsh’s Baffling Position On Coal

John_Walsh,_official_portrait,_113th_CongressJust when I think I can't get any more cynical about politics... In the July issue of Rural Montana, a newsletter published by the Montana Electric Cooperative Association, John Walsh states,
"The federal government should stay out of the business of requiring particular energy sources for electricity generation.."
He then states that each energy source should be able to "compete based on their cost." But yesterday in the Laurel Outlook, he stated,
"That’s why I’m introducing a bill in the Senate to force the Obama Administration to protect coal jobs by building 10 carbon capture and sequestration projects within 10 years."
Whoa. Stop the presses. His energy policy seems to boil down to promoting diametrically opposed positions and hoping that no one notices. What he conveniently leaves out of the Laurel Outlook Op-Ed is that he is also advocating that taxpayers, you and me, spend $10 billion dollars to build the 10 CCS projects in 10 years. Let's be clear here. He isn't introducing a bill to force Obama to do anything. He is introducing a bill to force you, the taxpayer, to spend $10 billion dollars to subsidize coal companies. I'm sorry but you can't tell the government to get out of your business and then demand that it fund your business. Some intellectual consistency would go along way here.

The problems with carbon, capture and sequestration (CCS)

Oh, where to begin. Taxpayers have already spent billions and billions of dollars CCS and there is little to show for it.  In June of 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled, "Coal plants: Opportunities Exist for DOE to Provide Better Information on the Maturity of Key Technologies to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions". The GAO notes that the entirety of government and academic reports on CCS find that deployment of the technology could cause electricity rates to increase between 30% and 80%, and that CCS would use more electricity (to power the capture and sequestration of CO2) as well as use substantially more water. I can't imagine that Walsh's staff didn't do a least cursory research on CCS before he recklessly stated that taxpayers should be forced to spend $10 billion more dollars on expensive, unproven technology. But, in the age of say nothing politics, it would make sense that they would throw out this absurd proposal in order to pander to special interest groups knowing full well that in the current state of Congressional politics, there is little chance of this bill getting anywhere. If we relied on the free market to determine what energy source we used, like he stated to the Montana Electric Cooperative magazine, then we would not be using taxpayer dollars to subsidize any energy source and he would have to admit that the decline of the coal industry is being driven by the free market not by burdensome regulations. U.S. natural gas production rose 16 percent from November 2008 to November 2012, creating a cheap supply that has made gas-generated electricity cheaper than coal.

Walsh is picking winners and losers

Now let's talk about protecting Montana jobs. Walsh's justification for proposing we spend billions of dollars on CCS technology is basically an economic one. He says we need to both address climate change but also protect Montana coal jobs.  Using data taken directly from the Montana Coal Council and PPL - Montana, we can estimate that there are around 1,500 direct jobs in Montana in coal mining and coal fired power plants. But what we also know is that the Montana economy creates that number of jobs about every month and a half and there are also 42 times as many jobs (64,000) in Montana's outdoor industry. This isn't to downplay those 1,500 jobs or the people that have them but, if we are going to have this conversation, we need all the numbers out on the table. The outdoor industry (hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, wildlife watching, boating, rafting, ATVs, skiing etc.) relies on Montana being, well, Montana. Ample populations of wildlife, healthy forests, deep snowpack for skiing, thousands of miles of trails for hiking and camping and clean, cold rivers for fishing are why people come here. It's why most of us live here. Climate change threatens all of that. I'm baffled as to why Walsh is spending his time, energy and political capital on pandering to an industry that, if we look at the numbers, is not that big of a piece of Montana's economy.  And, it also isn't going away anytime soon. The coal industry in Montana will be around for the foreseeable future. But we will also see a slow decline in coal jobs over time as we transition to cleaner sources of energy that decrease climate pollution and protect Montanans. Walsh should be figuring out how to make it a smooth and just transition for the workers so that they can feel confident that they will have good paying jobs in the future, even if it isn't in coal.

Lean in?

Walsh states that, "Montana is already leading the way in carbon capture and sequestration research and technology. Montana State University is at the cutting edge of this research, and now is the time to lean into it." Lean in, huh? I don't even know what the hell that means but I do know that if the Feds are going to spend billions of dollars on something, I'd rather they spend it on making America truly energy independent by making buildings energy efficient and creating energy systems for communities that don't change our climate and pollute our air and water. If he is doing this for votes, he should reconsider his strategy. I highly doubt that the people that vote on coal issues are going to vote for him, no matter what he says on it. They will vote for Daines, a person who believes our climate may be changing, but it isn't human caused. Walsh has done some good things for conservation and for our public lands but that isn't enough for me. He needs to tackle climate change in a real way or else Montana, our hunting and fish heritage and our public lands that we all enjoy are going to look a lot different in a generation, and not in a good way.

2 Comments on “Senator John Walsh’s Baffling Position On Coal

  1. So why are these 1,500 jobs so much more important that say, service industry jobs for tourists, personal care attendants for old people, or restaurant workers for your daily fix?

    If this portion of the MT economy is so small, why is it such a large issue? As an average young citizen living just above the poverty line, how do I profit of the state’s coal industry, and if I don’t, why the hell should I support it?

  2. Walsh’s take on CO2 sequestration likely came out of the same pipe (dream) as his master’s thesis. Now hear this: sequestration ain’t never gonna work in this galaxy. The power required to compress it into any manageable (liquid or flake-solid) form and pump it from where it’s formed to 6-8000′ underground will double or triple the cost of any useable product (electricity, syn-diesel, syn-gasoline,etc.). There (or anywhere 6-12000 its psig causes it to migrate) the CO2 will turn any water present into carbonic acid . . . three answers exist: 1) conservation and 2) production by hydro + solar + wind and 3) self-genocide as we continue to destroy our climate with fossil fuel residue.

    Maybe Walsh can, with Brad Molnar, Steve Daines, and Jeff Essman to assist, repeal Boyle’s Law and the laws of thermodynamics just for MT. Now we’re talking competitive advantage!

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