On an unappetizing day to make a case for solar power, about 30 environmentalists huddled in rain and snow Tuesday to urge U.S. Sen. Steve Daines to pay more attention to renewable energy sources.
The rally on a bleak afternoon at the Yellowstone County Courthouse preceded Daines’ Montana Energy Conference, which got underway with continuing education sessions on Tuesday at the Radisson Convention Center. The conference continues through Thursday.
The Northern Plains Resource Council, which organized the rally, planned to deliver a petition to Daines’ office Tuesday calling on him to protect Montana’s air, water and land. NPRC has raised concerns that the senator devotes too much of his time to propping up fossil fuels and too little encouraging solar and wind power, as well as other alternative energy sources.
A telephone call to Daines’ Billings office was not returned Tuesday afternoon or evening.
Carrying umbrellas and signs bearing such messages as “Clean Energy,” “Wind Never Runs Out” and “Wind Power = Jobs,” those at the rally sought shelter under tarps and trees as speakers called for greater focus on renewables and climate change.
“What do we want?” they chanted.
“When do we want it?”
Ben Reed, owner of Winpower West in Billings, told the crowd, “Sen. Daines, let’s sit down and have a conversation.” He argued that solar energy leads the nation in job growth, up 20 percent in the last two years. The declining cost of wind and solar energy makes it more than competitive with coal and other fossil fuels, he said.
“Coal powered us through the Industrial Revolution,” he said in an interview. “That was great. … But it’s time for coal to disappear.”
Reed and others argued against government policies that favor coal over other energy sources.
“We did not have a policy fight to stay with the horse and buggy,” he told the crowd. Nor, he added, were there policy fights over staying with the typewriter and the slide rule instead of the computer and calculator.
In an impassioned speech to end the rally, Mike Mulberry, senior minister at First Congregational United Church of Christ, said of Daines, “He talks about an all-of-the-above energy strategy, like it’s inclusive, but heads up a conference hosted and sponsored by the likes of Montana Petroleum Association, Montana Coal Council, Cloud Peak, Phillips 66, and Conoco Phillips with an obligatory nod to EverPower.”
EverPower Wind Holdings of Pittsburgh, Pa., did have a place on the conference agenda during a panel discussion Wednesday on “Renewables, Technology and the Grid.” Absaroka Energy of Bozeman, which has interests in wind and geothermal power, also was on the panel, along with representatives of NorthWestern Energy and Avista Utilities, a gas and electric power provider.
A keynote address on Thursday is to be delivered by a representative of the American Wind Energy Association. Otherwise, the conference did appear to be dominated by traditional energy interests.
Daines has come under steady attack from environmentalists for his criticism of the Obama administration’s “war on coal” and his skepticism about climate change. The League of Conservation Voters gave him an environmental score of zero in 2015, including six votes on matters relating to climate change. He also received scores of zero from the Western Organization of Resource Councils and from Environment America.
In a 2014 election debate with Democrat Amanda Curtis, Daines was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “She claims to be one of us, although she has a 100 percent voting record with the Northern Plains Resource Council. That group wants to shut down coal. That group wants to shut down oil and gas in our state.”
In a 2012 radio interview, Daines said he wasn’t convinced that humans were causing climate change. “I’m a skeptic,” he said. “I hear sometimes on both sides, because I think they’re using their agenda here just for political points here rather than looking objectively at the data.”
Speakers at the rally expressed their convictions that climate change is real and that humans are responsible.
Arlo Skari, a farmer near Chester, said that temperatures failed to fall below zero this winter for the first time since he began farming there in 1947. The Clark’s nutcracker has abandoned the Sweet Grass Hills because temperatures are no longer cold enough to kill a fungus that lives on whitebark pine, he said.
He also noted that greenhouse gas emissions could cost Montana 36,000 jobs over the next 35 years, according to a study commissioned by the Montana Wildlife Federation.
The Montana Farmers Union reported last year that climate change has reduced the size of the winter snowpack by 60 percent and that increased temperatures could cut wheat production and cut the value of crop yields 18 percent by 2050. Weeds and harmful insects also are expected to become bigger problems.
Gabriel Aponte of the Rocky Mountain College Environmental Club, urging prompt action, said that the club installed solar panels at the college’s student center in 2014.
“We can’t wait until it’s obvious that it’s too late,” he said.
Ken Medicine Bull of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe said that people must change their behavior because the earth is not the same anymore.
“Mother Earth is not a resource to be exploited,” he said.
In his closing speech, Mulberry fired up the chilly afternoon with the most direct attack of the day on Daines. Calling Daines a “snake-oil salesman” who uses “slick words and twisted terms,” he urged the senator, “Whether it be through the wide consensus on climate change or biblical imperative, listen to what the world is telling you. We have been given a gift. You are its trustee. Listen to climate scientists. Listen to biblical imperative. Listen to the earth.”