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Experts Encourage Mitigation, Adaptation to Climate Change

Mitigate. Adapt. Use Wind Power as an Engine for Economic Development. Promote Local Action Plans.

Panels of experts shared diverse perspectives this week on the future of Montana as affected by climate change at the Burton K. Wheeler Center Conference on “Climate Change in Montana: Impacts and Opportunities for Agriculture and Energy,” at Montana State University.

The conference format accepted global warming as a given and moved forward with suggestions for dealing with a warming world.

Keynote speaker and Minister of Environment for the Province of Alberta, Rob Renner, who said Alberta and Montana have a lot in common, put it this way: “We have a strong Western spirit of pioneering and entrepreneurship. We are people who believe ‘We can do it’ so ‘Let’s get it done.’”

S. David Freeman, former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, said climate change is an issue for everyone, because what anyone does, affects everyone else – worldwide. He compared the adjustments we will make to climate change as a Second Industrial Revolution. The United States must lead. The future of civilization rests on commitment to increased use of renewable energy.

Randy Udall, a consultant from Aspen, Colorado, stressed the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow (or stop) increases in global temperatures. He illustrated that oil production peaked in the U.S. around 1970. The huge increase in carbon emissions since World War II (worldwide) constitutes a problem of global proportions and is not going away any time soon. “Our choices,” he said, “are to (1) REDUCE greenhouse gases, (2) ADAPT, or (3) SUFFER. He concluded that we would probably experience all three. The question is – in what proportions. After 2030, climate change may not be reversible. “We need to start today,” he said. “The problem is so huge (and urgent) that we need to explore all alternatives.”

John Antle, from the MSU Department of Agricultural Economics, claimed the biggest hurdle to change is getting commitment from local, state, national, (and then) international, political policy makers. Democratic governments, he said, are not very good at making long-term investment decisions.

Rob Renner, of Alberta, agrees. He urged the audience to make the commitment, regardless of how controversial it may be. “Controversy will always be there,” he said. “Start slowly and learn as you go. Establish benchmarks. Avoid encouraging overly optimistic expectations.” All speakers urged the audience to “Decide to move forward. Encourage innovation. Capitalize on the opportunities these events present.”

Mitigation of climate change by reducing green house gas was a common theme at the conference. Climate change is caused by excess carbon dioxide (and other green house gas) in the atmosphere. We can reduce green house gas – by reducing the production of carbon emissions and by capturing and removing excess green house gas from the atmosphere.

Climate change plans (based on mitigation) set targets. The “25x’25 Action Plan: Charting America’s Energy Future” (www.25×25.org), signed by Governor Schweitzer, mandates 25% reduction by 2025. To meet these targets, mitigation plans propose a three step process: (1) Produce less green house gas through better efficiency or burning less fossil fuel; (2) Offset remaining carbon emissions through purchasing carbon credits from carbon reductions elsewhere; and (3) Capture and store carbon, in vegetation or in underground storage (carbon sequestration).

These three processes (reduce, offset, cap and store) show up again and again (as the whole strategy or pieces of a larger strategy) in discussions of how to meet climate change targets. Alberta’s climate change plans of 2002, 2003, and 2007 are based on this strategy, according to Renner. Greg Jergeson, Chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC), said the Commission requires gas and coal fired power plants to offset or cap and store 50% of carbon output under the Renewable Portfolio Standard. Mitigation steps are part of the climate change report and recommendations prepared for Governor Schweitzer under the supervision of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Richard Opper (Director of Montana DEQ) says the report was the work of 18 Montanans representing a wide range of interests over an 18-month period. The Climate Change Advisory Committee came up with 54 recommendations. Some of the conservation recommendations can be implemented right away. The Governor’s 20×10 Initiative “Leading by Example” asks state agencies to reduce energy consumption by 20% by 2010 (http://governor.mt.gov/news/pr.asp?ID=513). Other suggestions include development of renewable energy and carbon sequestration programs. Some recommendations require legislation. Opper expects climate change to be a hot topic in the next legislative session.

Holly Hill of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) in Butte said that NCAT plans to make the Climate Change Report user friendly to the public through a media campaign, the Montana Climate Action Project.

Montana is the Saudi Arabia of coal reserves. To tap these resources risks increasing green house gas substantially. Randy Udall praised Montana for maintaining its coal reserves as a “carbon sink” since coal is perceived as a “dirty” fuel. “Clean coal” technologies will have to be part of coal development.

The Colstrip power plants (owned by Pennsylvania Power and Light) are the largest single carbon emitter in the State. Mark Lambrecht of PPL estimates the costs to retrofit the plants at $250 million to $1.5 billion, if the technology were available. The technologies to clean up carbon emissions from coal-fired plants have not progressed to the point of commercial viability. The most promising technology (that can remove 90% of the carbon emissions) requires 30% of the total electricity output of the plant to achieve that goal. He called it a “parasitic load”. He hopes that PPL’s efforts to increase efficiencies at its 11 hydroelectric plants in Montana will earn the company efficiency credits, as offsets for carbon emissions at its coal fired plants.

Great Northern Properties – the largest owner of coal reserves other than the Federal government – owns former Great Northern railroad lands between Billings and Bismarck, North Dakota. Bill Pasco, of Great Northern, says that the company plans to build a syngas plant near Dickinson, North Dakota. The plant would change coal into a gas, by methanization. The lower quality of lignite coal from the company’s North Dakota properties makes shipping uneconomical. The Dickinson site (South Heart) is close to electric power to run the plant and pipelines to transport the finished product. An alternate site (Nelson Creek) near Circle, Montana is 20 miles from electricity and 70 miles from the nearest pipeline. Infrastructure is also hampering coal development.

Carbon sequestration (by pumping compressed carbon dioxide back into the soil for temporary of permanent storage) has some technological problems too. According to Greg Jergeson, the PSC is encouraging MSU, Montana Tech, the Bureau of Mines and others to actively seek solutions. Bill Pasco, of Great Northern, points to legal and liability questions, “Who owns the pore spaces where the carbon is stored? Surface or sub-surface right holders? Does underground storage of carbon pose any environmental risks? Who is liable if the carbon escapes or causes damage?”

Bio-sequestration (by storing carbon in living plants, like forests, rangeland and cows, and no-till croplands) seems less risky. Beartooth Capital Partners LLC brokers carbon credits (offsets) from ranches through the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX). “Emitters want to lower their green house gas,” Court Smith of Beartooth says. Ranchers can claim carbon savings by changing their management practices to no till, grassland restoration, or more efficient grazing systems. Credits are calculated (in tons/acre/year) and verified by a third party inspector. The credits are available for trade (sale). Twenty percent of the credits are held back until the end of contract period to insure against default or catastrophe.

Smith calls it a win-win situation. “Greenhouse gases are reduced. The land is protected from development and locked into sound management practices. And,” he says. “the rancher gets extra income, without up-front fees.” Professional range consultants design the management plans for the specific ranch. Beartooth earns commission on the sale of credits.

Next time: Part II: Adaptations to Climate Change: Agriculture and Alternate Fuels

Susan Duncan lives on a 76-acre irrigated farm in the Gallatin Valley of Montana that she and her husband Richard built from a fallow grain field since 1976. They raised registered and commercial cattle, sheep, and hay. Now they are niche market entrepreneurs of Dexter cattle and some produce. From 1999-2004 Susan was a country lifestyle columnist for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle “Fencelines” Section. She holds a B.S. Degree in Forestry from the University of Montana. For the last 20 years she has been an active participant in local efforts to envision a viable future and guide exploding development.

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  1. But what about the fact that the temps dropped a full degree in the last year and a 10 year halt is warming is now predicted, with the temps falling further in some areas?

  2. It doesn’t matter if you believe global warming is real or not. It doesn’t matter if you believe people caused it or not. Whatever the climate does, we will all be affected by it. We all will have to adapt, whether we like it or not. The global warming true believers don’t know how severe it will be or how long it will last any more than anyone else does. All they are saying is that reducing carbon emissions (one way or another) is an attempt at an insurance policy that the earth will not be too hot for human habitation.

    Moving into alternative sources of energy makes economic sense. With our current population we cannot run our society on wood or coal based steam and our lights on whale oil like we used to. Petroleum will some day come to an end. We are entering the next phase. What will it be? What will it look like? Let’s explore that.

    With the switch from coal and wood driven steam locomotives to diesel in the 1930’s, U.S. energy use and per capita productivity increased 10 times. This was a huge economic stimulus – a quantum leap in how society operated. What’s the next “Big Thing”? Information Technology. That’s still playing out.
    The next big thing could be renewable energy and more environmentally friendly ways to do everyday things.

    Climate (especially in the Intermountain West) varies significantly from year to year. We are having a cool, wet spring this year, much like I remember from the late 70’s early 80’s. Plant your garden on Memorial Day and by evening you can see your breath and are thankful your seeds haven’t sprouted yet.

    Climate change has been the downfall of a number of civilizations. Usually when poplulation increases are causing stress, an unfavorable climate change pushes them over the edge. The climate change occurred over generations so that one generation could not grasp what was happening until things became too difficult. The Viking Greenlanders, The Moche in Peru. I suggest reading “The Little Ice Age” and “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan. These books document how and why climate change affected various civilizations and often changed history.

  3. Right on Susan. On CNN there was a very depressing program about the looming oil shortage–forgetting for the moment the negative effects that use of this energy has on climate–that could create a worldwide depression that would make the 1929 depression look like child’s play. As more countries are competing for the shrinking oil supply, the cost of this product could skyrocket (today it’s at $127 a barrel) making the majority of our oil based economy unprofitable. Airline travel would cease, food prices would soar due to transportation costs and there could be major social and political unrest. And meanwhile president Bush and our congress “fiddles while Rome burns”. Think about what could have been if this country, instead of spending a trillion $’s in Irag, had spent this same amount on clean energy & energy independance what could have been.