Power project blows ill wind

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Energy. We seem to use more every year while agreeing, in theory at least, that we should import less and pollute less. Proponents of developing more sustainable sources of energy are at loggerheads with economists, stockholders and big business interests focused mainly on profits and growth.

California has often led the way in solar and wind power. In the Rocky Mountains, with abundant coal, gas and oil still untapped, many governors are pushing to extract the resources from both public and private lands. Montana’s Gov. Brian Schweitzer would be the exception here.

But environmentalists, often joined by hunting, fishing and tourism interests, naturally oppose drilling in our national forests and roadless areas. That makes sense. However, the environmental advocates also seem to oppose the development of the wind and solar farms like those that dot the California landscape.

After a week in Yellowstone National Park, which seems to operate nicely with several modest solar arrays, only a few gas stations, and no unsightly power poles, I was shocked to learn that environmental activists blocked a huge wind farm proposed by GreenHunter Energy on 20,000 acres near the Canadian border. Their chief concern was that the 400-foot turbines would loom over a nearby wilderness area. What were they thinking?

The Texas company will now take its $200 to $500 million investment somewhere more hospitable. Probably California. To be fair, other environmentalists have opposed wind turbines in areas where migratory birds and California condors might be harmed.

GreenHunter Energy CEO Gary Evans acknowledged Montana has probably the greatest wind resource in the country, and a governor who is an outspoken proponent of wind power. Nevertheless, he says: Business goes where it’s easiest to do business.

Environmentalists have also stopped three other Montana wind projects by blocking the construction of transmission lines needed to carry a total of 372 megawatts.

So where does that leave those of us who want to depend less on fossil fuels and keep the landscape unsullied? Up the creek, I guess.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) says if we can’t figure out a way to make wind projects work, we’ll all be riding bicycles.

And that’s what Bob Ekey, Northern Rockies regional director for the Wilderness Society, favors. In his guest column for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Ekey says reducing our appetite for energy will help us protect our public lands-the places where we hike, hunt and fish, but also the sources of our cleanest and coolest water.

Unfortunately, these beautiful places, national treasures, are major targets for coal and oil development, particularly in Wyoming, where extraction industries have considerable influence with, yes, resident VP Dick Cheney.

Ekey and his staff all ride their bikes or walk to work, weather permitting. The Wilderness Society offices in a modest old residence are energy efficient and those who work there are motivated to reduce their personal carbon footprint.

According to a recent report based on Bureau of Land Management data, if current trends continue there will be 126,000 new oil and gas wells on public lands in just five Rocky Mountain states. That would be 26,152 in Montana and 58,209 in Wyoming. And estimates of woody biomass to be converted into gasoline, which some leaders in the Forest Service say would provide 15 percent of the nation’s supply, is grossly unrealistic, Ekey says. The biomass is so bulky that shipping would be economically unviable and its conversion to gas requires great amounts of water, which is becoming scarce as water levels drop and temperatures rise, closing many rivers to fishing in summer. The glaciers in Glacier National Park are predicted to disappear in just a couple of decades.

So where will we get the sustainable, clean energy needed to keep growing populations housed and the economy afloat? Well, I think the environmentalists (on whose side I generally stand) will have to come to some accommodation with the companies willing to invest in wind and solar production. And they’ll need to do it before those companies have fled to greener pastures, so to speak. And maybe the companies could locate their turbines out of the path of migratory birds and out of site in scenic landscapes.

In the meantime, all of us could become aware of how our personal habits might affect the overall consumption of energy and preservation of the environment.

I probably won’t ride a bike very often, but I can walk to the library and the market. And if I don’t buy too much, I’ll have less to carry back. Not a bad plan at that.