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Cleaning a Spill and Reigniting a Debate in Montana

Just as the BP Gulf oil spill and the Japan nuclear plant crisis forced those communities to re-evaluate the energy produced in their backyards, the residents of Montana will soon face similar challenges.

First, though, there’s quite a mess to clean up.

On Friday, an Exxon Mobile pipeline originally buried just 12 inches below the Yellowstone River ruptured, spewing an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude oil – or about 42,000 gallons – into the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states.

The spill promises to respark a debate the pits deep-rooted extraction industries like coal and oil against the state’s iconic natural beauty. But the battle lines are far fuzzier than that, says Connor Darby, president of the nonprofit Montana Renewable Energy Association.

“On the one hand a lot of people are championing natural beauty. On the other hand, they’re trying to make a living so they can stay here,” said Darby, who points out that support for renewables is strongest in the urban areas rather than the wide open scenic parts of the state. “The mindset is for cheap energy up front that is going to help you save money and survive in one of the slower economies in the country.”

The spill, Darby believes, could help those in the rural part of the state better understand the relationship between energy makeup, policy decisions and rural protection.

“Like any major disaster we’ve seen, it really makes people stand up straight and pay attention to the problems with our existing system and open their eyes to options that exist, not only as consumers but as producers of their own energy,” he said.

To get there, Darby said there’s a lot of work that needs to be done through legislation and education.

Perhaps the most divisive energy issue facing the state is the Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI), a 1,500-megawatt (MW) transmission line that would deliver electricity mostly from renewable sources in Montana across the Western U.S. The proposal, though, has been caught up in eminent domain law.

“Despite lots of wind energy proponents, there are large numbers of land owners and other interested parties up against the proposed line,” said Darby. “It’s been a major debate.”

While on the surface, legislation has made strides in helping renewable sources come online, the Renewable Portfolio Standard established in 2005 still makes it difficult for some to compete. The RPS stipulates that utilities are not required to buy the renewable energy if the costs are 15 percent or greater than other available sources.

Some sources, like hydro, wind and biomass, are able to make the cut. Large-scale solar, though, has had a difficult time making inroads in the state.

Aside from the policy decisions, sometimes it’s the more easily understood news events like the Yellowstone River spill that allows the Montana Renewable Energy Association to slowly chip away through education.

“We’re at the point of moving beyond the early adopters of the technologies and we’re working to instill these new technologies in the mindset,” said Darby. “It’s a challenge not only in Montana but all over the country.”

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