Dave Atkins

The UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research is doing their annual tour of the state reporting on the economic status of the past year and prognostication for 2024. The theme is “Implementing the Green Energy Transition – What Will It Take?” I attended one of the meetings in Missoula and I applaud them for addressing this critical issue.

Director Barkey did an excellent job laying out two of the main challenges facing this transition. The first is the large amount and diversity of minerals needed to support wind, solar, and nuclear compared to fossil fuels. The second concerns the long-time spans that are required for the permitting and development of new mines and transmission lines. This currently does not allow for the speed of development needed to meet the goal of net zero by 2050.

The luncheon panel featured Heather McDowell of Stillwater Mining and Sonja Nowakowski of Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). They stated the US Geological Survey has identified 50 critical minerals for the energy transition and we only produce six of them domestically. If we want to be energy independent, we need to develop our own resources.

Montana has some of the strongest state mining laws in the US. Heather indicated Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) is important to the conversation that is needed so we all understand the consequences of using fossil fuels, and of developing minerals for the transition.

We shouldn’t be afraid of the discussion; rather it is essential to move forward.

There were at least three missed opportunities in the seminar. First, tying together the intervening presentations on Health, Agriculture, Tourism, Forestry, and Housing to the importance of the green energy transition and Montana’s economic outlook and lifestyle. Second, the economic opportunities the energy transition provides. Third, presenting a powerful economic policy that would use market forces to help accelerate the transition.

Montanan’s human health is declining as a result of smoke from wildfires and heat stress as the summers get hotter. Agriculture production declines when drought reduces dryland crop, hay, and pasture yields and thus cattle, while also reducing the water available for irrigation. Tourism is affected by the smoke-filled skies, the low water flows that restrict fishing, and the low snowpack that affects winter skiing, hydropower, and irrigation water.

Wildfires and insect epidemics damage and kill trees that adversely affects timber manufacturers, plus the cost of fire suppression and rehabilitation. All these are costs that are imposed by fossil fuel emissions on the other business sectors, what economists call externalities. They should have been articulated in the seminar.

Another missed opportunity is the new economic possibilities because of new technologies and innovations. Montana has some of the best wind energy potential in the country. Our mountainous landscape provides excellent potential for pumped hydroelectric energy storage to fill the gaps in wind and solar production. The opportunities for responsible mineral development are based on the painful lessons we have learned from the past. The development of Enhanced Geothermal Energy.

We can use new power transmission lines to double and triple the amount of electricity that can be moved over the existing system. Battery energy improvements and cost declines are occurring exponentially, thus improving transportation and utility reliability and cost competitiveness.

The use of climate-smart forestry that combines harvesting and prescribed burning to create wildfire and insect resistant and resilient forests is possible. We can also use the harvested trees in new innovative products such as cross-laminated timber, wood fiber insulation, and biochar from slash. Biochar can help some of our agricultural and forest soils hold more water and nutrients to help maintain their productivity.

Lastly, the BBER seminar missed highlighting economic policies that can drive the green energy transition, which is supported by many economic Nobel laureates, former federal reserve chairs and Treasury Secretaries, both conservative and liberal. Putting a price on fossil carbon pollution combined with a carbon cashback check to everyone in the country would provide the market signals to drive the transition.

It is not too late for BBER to connect all these dots for next year’s Outlook report and seminar and build upon the good work from this year. As a nonpartisan state-funded economic think tank, they have the opportunity and responsibility to help our Members of Congress, Senators Tester and Daines, and Representatives Zinke and Rosendale, our state legislators, and the business community understand the path forward.

Dave Atkins – member of Citizens’ Climate Education and Lobby, forest ecologist, forester, and landowner.