Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Truth About the Power Line Struggle

By Ken Toole
President, The Policy Institute

I’m writing regarding the recent editorial about eminent domain and the struggles over power lines. The editorial made some factual errors that need to be addressed.
First, let’s address the current controversy over siting of two power lines, the Mountain States Intertie and the Montana Alberta Tie line. Each of these lines has its own particular issues which are varied and complex. But the editorial said there was no similar controversy when the power lines from Colstrip were built. That is simply wrong. The Colstrip lines were opposed vociferously. Some of my first political experience was on the “Hold the Line Committee” in the Bitterroot Valley which opposed the Colstrip line crossing the valley and successfully got it moved farther north.

In many ways the fight over the Colstrip line was the same as the struggles we are seeing today. Fights over power lines are very hot and very short lived. Often the opponents have little interest in broader policy issues or being part of any bigger picture. They simply want the line moved. If you move it over the next ridge the room fills with a different set of opponents. But, that does not preclude opponents from making policy and big picture arguments. Nor does that prevent public officials from mistaking the heat of a local power line fight for some kind of sustaining political base.

But the editorial also missed something very important. Traditionally the political alignment around power line projects is developers versus conservationists. That is not the case today. The editorial pointed to a piece written jointly by representatives of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a labor union that has typically been supportive of big power projects, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s largest environmental groups. In addition, The Montana Environmental Information Center supported the legislation revising eminent domain laws and the Western Environmental Law Center is actively working on the MSTI proposal to develop a new process for siting with broad public involvement, community education and economic analysis.

Many environmentalists have moved beyond just saying no to new power lines. The reality is that the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels cannot continue. The threats posed by climate change, relying on other countries for our energy supplies and the price volatility resulting from fossil fuel commodity markets have to be addressed. Equally important, our electric infrastructure is aging and, no matter what the fuel source, it needs to be upgraded. And that is going to cost a lot of money. Our money should be spent making investments that move us away from continued dependence on dirty and expensive fossil fuels toward more efficient use of the power we have and development of clean, domestic and renewable sources of power. That means new power lines may have to be built.

The second error is the contention that wind power is more expensive than the alternatives, particularly coal. This is simply not true. The cost of energy we get from the Judith Gap Wind Farm is less than the cost of power you are getting from Colstrip 4. Somehow wind power has become fodder in an ideological struggle in the political arena. Some people simply refuse to see the technological advancement in wind power that has occurred in the last 30 years. Not surprisingly these same folks don’t see the same pattern as solar power is reaching commercial production scale. It is ironic that the same folks who scream about “subsidies” granted to renewable power sit silently as billions of dollars in subsidies, tax loop holes and support programs are handed out to various fossil fuel industries.

The advantages of renewable power development are significant and self evident. Montana could play a role in meeting the increasing demand for renewable power. We should do it on our own terms assuring that the people of the state benefit from any new development. But to those who simply say “no” I just have to ask, how much longer do you want to stay dependent on fossil fuels, and what kind of world are we leaving for our children?

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