Fueling a Sustainable Energy Future

In the summer of 1974, a small group of Eastern Montanans sat on a porch discussing the North Central Power Study. This study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposed 42 coal burning power plants across the Great Plains, 21 of which were destined to dot the landscape of eastern Montana. Sacrifice. That is what the study proposed for eastern Montana – that it could be sacrificed for energy development and all the impacts that came along with it. In their discussion this group of Eastern Montanans asked – was it necessary? To scar the landscape, to pollute their air and water, to sacrifice the quality of their communities? Or were there alternatives?

Indeed there were alternative solutions, and this is how AERO – the Alternative Energy Resources Organization- was formed, with a group of people deciding that sometimes there is a responsibility when saying ‘no’ to one thing to say ‘yes’ to something else. Yes to aggressive energy efficiency and conservation! Yes to dispersed wind, small hydro, solar power systems! Yes to biofuels!

For the last few years many communities have had to face similar questions in regard to the Keystone XL Pipeline, an oil pipeline transporting crude oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast through hundreds of communities. What risks does this pose to my health and safety, the land and water, the community I love?  Is this the energy economy we want for our nation? And – is there an alternative?

A couple of weeks ago President Obama rejected TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline application. However, it is clear that the President’s recent action represents only a delay at this point—not a final rejection.  This delay provides time for review of the concerns of the people and communities living on the proposed pipeline route. What do the people of Circle, Nashua, Fort Peck, or Baker Montana want? What will they sacrifice?

The President’s announcement came at the same time as an announcement from ExxonMobil stating that July’s disastrous Silvertip pipeline spill into the Yellowstone River was actually worse than they had projected – 50% more oil than their original estimate had spilled. Only 1% of that spilled oil has been recovered. In the meantime Keystone I pipeline, which currently transports crude oil from the tar sands through the Dakotas, leaked 14 times in the past eighteen months.

So with this in mind, what is the sacrifice being asked of Eastern Montanans? What is the emergency response plan for Keystone XL? Is the thickness of the pipe consistent, or is it thinner in rural areas? What is the lifespan of the pipeline considering the abrasive oil it will transport? Is it true it will be abandoned in place at the end of that lifespan? These are the questions being asked by citizens along the pipeline that need to be explored before the next TransCanada application.

The U.S. has decreased our oil consumption in the last few years. With new fuel efficiency standards, transition to flex-fuel and hybrid vehicles as well as investment in biofuel research and development this could continue. Americans can do more to conserve fuel and reduce pollution, but stopping the Keystone XL won’t accomplish either goal. Driving less and using vehicles with better fuel efficiency will do much more to protect our environment and would save Americans money, too. Producing our own fuel in our own communities will spur local growth, as well as give communities a stake in the energy economy. A system such as this encourages local decision-making that can mitigate sacrifice of land or quality of life.

In Montana there are alternatives to a centralized energy system that benefits the bottom lines of large corporations at the expense of small communities. There are projects around the state that benefit local communities and provide fuel in a sustainable way. At MSU-Northern’s Bioenergy Center in Havre researchers are creating bio-based jetfuel for the Air Force. Recently they received a grant to assist in biofuel research so companies can test their products at their facilities. The project will pair the university with local investors, as well as local farmers, to grow oilseed crops and process them into biofuel. In Chester, Earl Fisher is producing and selling biofuel made from oilseed crops grown in Montana. In Big Sandy, Bob Quinn runs his tractor on biodiesel he makes using oilseeds he grows himself. Projects such as these are working towards a sustainable future for Montana communities and are an alternative to sacrificing safety and health.

AERO believes that the best way to affect change is by empowering people in their own communities to work towards sustainable solutions. However community is one of the first things to go when energy is centralized, concentrated, and wastefully used. The further removed we are as a people from the resources we use; the less likely we are to use them wisely. As we plan the future of energy let us consider alternatives to our consumption of oil and alternatives to community sacrifice.

In Helena, I’m Sarah Lesnar for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization.  AERO has been building sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at aeromt.org.

This commentary aired on February 2nd, 2012 on Montana Public Radio.

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