Saturday, August 18, 2012

Coal Delusions

You’ve got to hand it to those Republican legislators from Billings: they love their fossil fuels.  A few weeks ago Rep. Doug Kary was all bent out of shape because he thought President Obama was doing in domestic oil production, and now we have Sen. Ed Walker, equally outraged because environmentalists are trying to do in Montana coal.

According to a broadside in the Billings Gazette, Walker thinks we’ve been invaded by a troop of “out-of-state” environmentalists, beating bongo drums and enveloped in a “smoky haze of questionable origin,” who are trying to stop expanded production and export (to China) of Montana coal. The result, Walker claims, will be to turn down a “huge” economic opportunity that can have a “transformative effect” on the state’s economy.  It would be, Walker says, “like tearing up a jackpot lottery ticket.”

I’m not sure how Walker arrived at his snarky description of the coal protestors in Helena – the press account I read said plain old Montanans were leading the gathering and there wasn’t a word about bongo drums or questionable smoky hazes – but I suppose it makes for good, devoid-of-the-facts, campaign rhetoric.  When it comes to coal and the Montana economy, however, Walker really needs to do a reality check.

The senator is apparently deeply impressed by the contention that the proposed Otter Creek mine would create, between mining itself and its ripple effect on other industries like services and retail trade, a total of 2,000 jobs.  Actually that figure is a little high: according to a study supported by Arch Coal, an out-of-state  corporation that will run the mine, the total number of jobs created when Otter Creek is up and running will be about 1,750, with just 300 at the mine itself.  Let’s assume 1,750 is correct. It sounds like a big number, but placed in the context of the Montana economy, it’s a drop in the bucket –a little less than one third of one percent of all the jobs in the state.  And between 2000 and 2008, those relatively normal years before the onset of the Great Recession, Montana added an average of about 875 jobs every month, despite the fact that natural resources employment was essentially flat.*  In other words, if and when these 1,750 Otter Creek jobs ever materialize,  we will be about where we would have been in another two months without them.  1,750 jobs aren’t negligible, but judge for yourself if they are “huge” or “transformative.”

Walker also argues that putting a lid on Montana coal development will have no impact on carbon emissions because the Chinese can always get their coal somewhere else.  If that’s true, it sounds like China doesn’t really need us and Walker is advocating an economic development strategy whose success will be depend heavily on the good will of China as it works out its own trade, energy and climate change policies. Judge for yourself whether being an economic colony of China is Montana’s ticket to prosperity.

We can also do better than to abandon responsibility and sell coal to customers who will use it to despoil the planet, just because if we don’t, someone else will.  Any self-respecting Montana barkeep will tell you that reasoning doesn’t apply when it comes to selling another drink to a drunk. It doesn’t apply to a pharmacist when it comes to selling more pills to people addicted to prescription medications.  Judge for yourself if it should apply to a state that is pledged to engage only in responsible resource development.

*I derived these jobs numbers from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis Regional Economic Accounts.