Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Montanans favor energy development

Yesterday's Gazette had another front-page story from its recent polling data. Not surprisingly, Montanans favor energy development of almost every kind.

There is broad support for coal development, thanks primarily to Gov. Schweitzer's championing of clean coal. Without that, Democrats in this state would likely have reflexively spoken against it. Gov. Schweitzer is to be commended for wanting to develop our coal resources. One of the reasons that our neighbors to the south in Wyoming have been rolling in money for years while Montana struggled to balance budgets has been because they are an coal-friendly state.

Conspicuously absent from the poll was any mention of oil. This should be a matter of concern to Billings, since Billings is the economic and management center of the oil industry in Montana. One would think that the Gazette would have been interested in it.

Much of the current budget surplus that Democrats are anxious to start spending is due to revenues from booming oil development in eastern Montana. Yet Gov. Schweitzer rarely speaks of any interest in promoting oil development.

Of course, leaders in the oil-development community in Billings are overwhelmingly Republican, so one wonders if this plays a role in Democrats ignoring this important part of the energy picture in Montana.

Alternative energy was found to be popular. Asking people if they are in favor of alternative energy sources is somewhat like asking them if they are in favor of world peace.

Not wanting alternative energy development is a sign of cognitive difficulties. Which ones are practical is quite another question.

Wind power is an important part of Montana's future. Conrad Burns made sure that it was a part of the comprehensive energy bill that Republicans passes in Congress -- a bill that had been needed for many years.

Biodiesel is more questionable in practicality, with evidence that its production consumes as much or more fuel than it makes. It is also questionable whether it would be helpful to Montana. Our cattle industry is much larger than our corn production industry, and the current corn supply now goes mostly into cattle feed. Biodiesel would drive up the price of corn for cattle producers -- would that be a good thing.

Finally, the poll showed that Montanans strongly oppose the sale of NorthWestern Energy to an Australian concern. This also shows some common sense. While in general a conservative-leaning state like Montana would prefer private ownership and free trade, public utilities are essential service industries that have effective monopolies and as such are subject to higher regulation than other industries.

In a time of excessive off-shoring of all kinds of services, this is no time to off-shore the ownership of NorthWestern Energy. Whether anything can be done about it is a different issue.

It is worth noting that South Dakota, the current headquarters of the company, determined through their public service commissioners that they did not have the ability to stop the sale under current South Dakota law. The overwhelmingly Republican legislature is planning to pass legislation to give such authority to the state (showing that reasonable energy regulation does not need to be an issue of partisan politics), but it may be too late.