Monday, June 11, 2012

Helena’s City Council tries to stop coal in Montana -- and some food for thought on alternative energy

It’s Monday -- time for some fossil fuel news. Again this week we will venture far afield from the Bakken, and even from oil. It is to Helena we go, and coal...

There has been quite an ongoing kerfuffle in Helena, as said city’s council weighs in on whether coal shipping terminals should be built out in Washington. Apparently, the city council has members who are concerned that shipping terminals in the Puget Sound area will decrease quality of life in Helena, and they want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do a study, pronto.

For those who aren’t familiar with the routine, if you want to stop something, you study it to death. And the question of why Helena, alone among Montana cities with railroad tracks running through them, should be uniquely concerned about increased train traffic isn’t really explained.

Don’t get us wrong -- we don’t like waiting for trains to get through a crossing any more than the next person. And perhaps there will be more train exhaust in town -- we personally prefer magic trains that don’t have exhaust or make noise. Montana Rail Link should buy some. But at a recent meeting in Helena, it was left to someone named Schweitzer to ask the obvious question: “If it didn’t have the word coal in here, if it had grain, would we be here?” In other words, would they be debating this issue?

We’d like to say that this was the good guv sticking up for coal, but it wasn’t. It was somebody named Carl Schweitzer, not Brian (no word on whether they are related.) While the governor has called Montana the “Saudi Arabia of coal,” Gov. Schweitzer apparently seems to think that Saudi Arabia got all of that wealth by leaving oil in the ground rather than drilling for it.

Getting back to Carl Schweitzer’s question, though -- it was apparently never answered, which is in itself an answer. No, if Montana were shipping out huge quantities of grain by rail, with the same traffic and the same exhaust and noise issues, we doubt that activists would be trying to stop the building of a major grain-loading terminal on the West Coast. They might justly want practical solutions to the increased traffic, but one doubts they would be trying to stop or even decrease the amount of grain shipped from Montana.

The Sierra Club, predictably, was at the Helena City Council meeting. We would like to say that the Sierra Club has an undying interest in the traffic waits, air quality, and noise in every city the size of Helena across America, showing up regularly at their city council meetings. No, the reason that the Sierra Club is weighing in would not go away, even if railway companies built bridges and tunnels sufficient to keep there from being any waits at railway crossings, and even if they could baffle the sound into silence and suction the exhaust from Helena’s air:

Bob Clark, senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club in Missoula, acknowledged that his group seeks to phase out coal in favor of renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy conservation, and he said the barriers to those solutions are not technological.

This is, in other words, just about stopping coal development by any means necessary, and it would be more honest if those involved would just say so. There is much to admire about the Sierra Club. No sane person wants dirty air or water, and there was unfortunately an earlier generation of industry that honestly didn’t seem to care if they were dumping pollutants wherever it was convenient. The Sierra Club played an important role in changing our nation’s culture for the better on that score.

With all due respect to Mr. Clark, however, the barriers to replacing coal are technological, just as the barriers to having a computer in every home back in the 1960’s was technological -- it was possible to put a computer in every American home in 1969, but could it have been done without massively wasteful government subsidies, and would the product really have been any good?

It is all well and good to go on about alternative energy, but the reality is that if we had the technology to efficiently produce wind and solar energy at competitive prices, its production wouldn’t need to be subsidized -- and it is massively subsidized, while providing a minuscule amount of our energy supply. We are all for the government supporting research into alternative energy -- billions of dollars worth of research. It is crazy, however, to rush technologies into mass production that just aren’t ready.

In 2012, it makes as much sense to try, on a commercial scale, to replace coal and oil with wind and solar as it would have, in 1969, to have a government-subsidized program to replace the libraries in every city and home with a computer. Had governments tried to do so -- putting high-cost, low-functionality computers into every home (taking up most of the living room,) we would today look at those beasts in a museum or junkyard and text someone (using a cheap mobile device that does infinitely more than a 1969 mainframe,) asking “what were they thinking?

Likewise, someday, as a future generation is driving (or hovering -- so the cost and unsightliness of roads can also be eliminated) vehicles that use cheap and clean energy sources that haven’t even been thought of yet, at less cost than we pay now for gas, they will see all of these ugly wind farms, rusting unused in the rain, and wonder out loud: “what were they thinking?”

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