Monday, July 9, 2012

Montana Democrats -- caught between a frack and a hard place

Three recent pieces in the press give an indication of just how and why Montana Democrats are torn over how to approach traditional energy development in Montana.

The first appears to be the account of another local success story in the making. Jan Falstad provides another fine article in the Billings Gazette on Bakken-related business development, this time telling the story of two Montana brothers, Sivert and Richard Mysse, who put their farm-boy know-how to work in developing a new truck for heating fracking fluid. After noticing how many trucks were needed to heat water at a fracking site in the Bakken oil fields, they got the idea of constructing an innovative truck that they say is "twice as big, one-third more efficient, and safer than the competition," according to Falstad’s report. By heating the water for fracking, fewer chemicals are needed, and the entire process is more efficient. The brothers sold some ranch land near Ingomar and used other “creative financing” to build the $2 million truck, and they are now marketing their services in the Bakken.

Whether their enterprise will be a financial windfall for the brothers remains to be seen, but this is the kind of entrepreneurial spirit -- seeing a need and coming up with an innovative way to meet it -- that is inspiring. We suspect that given the demand for services of every kind in the Bakken, they will indeed be successful. Small businesses like this are the lifeblood of a healthy economy. Concerns that employ a half-dozen people here and there add up quickly.

Meanwhile, we have a guest editorial in the Helena Independent-Record decrying the fact that the Montana Land Board voted 3-2 in 2010 to take another step toward finally developing the Otter Creek coal reserves. The lead author of the op-ed is Montana writer Phil Condon, and he was joined by 3 other Montana authors (including William Kittredge,) actress Margot Kidder, and the chair of a Livingston-based liberal women’s activist group.

The authors criticize Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Sec. State McCulloch, and State Auditor Monica Lindeen for “siding with Big Coal.” They state that Attorney General (and Democratic nominee for governor) Steve Bullock and Secretary of Public Instruction (sic) Denise Juneau oppose the permits, which indicates that there will be a change of attitude in the state house if Bullock is elected governor. While we have been critical of what has seemed like 8 years of foot-dragging on the part of Gov. Schweitzer, at least his rhetoric has often been there, favoring coal development of one sort or another. And in this case, his vote seems to be there as well.

I’m not familiar with most of the authors of this editorial, but have enjoyed a couple of William Kittredge’s books (even while failing to share some of his cynical attitudes toward the West in which he grew up.) As public intellectuals, their voice has a certain influence in Montana and they deserve to be heard out, as do all who express their opinions thoughtfully.

In my recent American Spectator piece, I made the observation that many Montanans of a certain bent seem determined to be stuck in the past (hard to believe that I as a pretty old-fashioned conservative am even writing that,) noting that AG Steve Bullock’s arguments in the Citizens United case seem appropriate for 1912, but not really for 2012. The Copper Kings are long dead and they aren’t coming back -- the alphabet soup reasons (EPA, OSHA, DEQ...) why the landscape has dramatically and permanently changed when it comes to “Big Mining” of any sort are well-known to everyone. And yet, predictably, the Condin piece leads off with the “Copper Kings.” Pretending not to know how irrelevant this argument is in 2012 amounts to an inexcusable rhetorical mendacity on the part of skilled and experienced writers who know exactly what they are doing with their words.

The authors’ concerns about contaminating water supplies used by ranchers find great sympathy here at MH. What one would rather see, however, is an attitude that seeks both to strictly protect water supplies while also encouraging mining and development. Instead, the real argument is found deeper into the piece -- coal mining’s purported effect on global warming. Take away the global warming argument, and the pressures to find a “win-win” situation are inescapable. Include it, and any rhetorical weapons -- relevant or not -- are justified in the fight to save the planet, whatever the cost to individuals or to local economies. The intended audience of this article really consists of just three people, just as many of those ranting articles in the media leading up to the Obamacare decision were really only being written for one reader. In the latter case, the pieces were being written for Chief Justice John Roberts. In the former, the piece is being written for the three Democrats who are perceived as favorable to proceeding with the coal leases -- only one would need to flip a vote to stop the development cold in its tracks. But the calculus is more complicated than that for Montana Democratic politicians.

Which brings us to the third article -- a Washington Post piece that centers on Montana’s Democratic Senators, Jon Tester and Max Baucus, and their support for the Keystone XL pipeline. Sen. Baucus has, according to this report, been particularly open to lobbying for the pipeline. Sen. Tester has been supportive but seems more muted. The financial politics of Senate races play a significant role here, one would think. Baucus, with his role as head of the powerful Finance Committee, has an endless stream of people and entities in the financial sector who are lining up to line his campaign's pockets. Baucus doesn’t have to worry about money -- he just needs to worry about votes, should Montanans (who overwhelmingly support the Keystone XL pipeline) decide they care more about energy development than about what Baucus’s seniority can do for the state.

Sen. Tester, on the other hand, is heavily dependent on the sort of bicoastal left-leaning fundraising that gave him an edge when he took on then Sen. Conrad Burns. At the same time, he also needs those votes. So Sen. Tester seems to be trying to navigate the shoals carefully -- give enough support to the Keystone pipeline to satisfy Montana voters, while being quiet enough about it so as not to dry up his out-of-state funding sources. Whether out-of-state fundraising is playing a role in AG Bullock’s decision not to support Otter Creek is an interesting question for which there is not, as yet, an obvious answer.

One thing would seem likely -- entrepreneurs like the Mysee brothers and their employees will likely cast their votes for those who at the very least are not hostile and obstructive when it comes to traditional energy development -- while Condin, Kittredge, Kidder, et al. could play havoc with Democrats’ ability to raise money from liberal sources should they continue to push the issue.

As the title above says, Montana Democratic politicians in high-dollar races are indeed between a frack and a hard place.

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