The Billings Outpost

Maybe just build half of Keystone XL pipeline

Political Potpourri

Brad Molnar

For a political eternity we have been waiting on the decision of President Obama on whether to build TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline to carry tar-sand oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.

His stated concerns are environmental degradation if there is a rupture. His supporters, the environmental lobby, have their panties in a twist because of the carbon footprint in procuring the oil from the tar sands and in using the refined product in our cars. I cannot untwist their panties by press time so shall not pursue that endeavor.

Before you grab the tar and feathers, know that I was the one who started the process to allow an “on ramp” in Baker to permit the injection of Bakken oil into the XL pipeline, and I approached Canadian officials to help make it happen.

As a proud member of Local 1686, I have taken the pipeline safety construction and environmental remediation course so I can help build the line. So, no, I am not opposed to building the pipeline, at least not the top half, which ends at the oil hub of Cushing, Okla. What I am against is relegating this opportunity to 30-second political sound bites instead of having an intelligent discussion of the issue. 

During the last election cycle, every Montana candidate for federal office loudly proclaimed we should build the XL for sorely needed Montana jobs and energy independence. Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Steve Daines still talk that way. I have no idea why.

The hand that feeds you

Readers of this column recognize that our benefactor, TranCanada, wanted to build the Chinook electrical transmission line to carry wind power from Harlowton to California.

The fact that it tied into our transmission lines at Colstrip and could also carry our current coal- and hydro-generated electricity to the same markets and crush the Montana economy was downplayed by the Schweitzer administration. Nice guys all.

You may recall that candidate Brian Schweitzer envisioned a dozen refineries being built in Eastern Montana to handle Bakken oil. One, with a 20,000 barrel per day (bbd) capacity, has broken ground. Another is in the final planning stage and a third is seeking financing.

All will be in North Dakota because the Montana permitting system, and incumbent judges, allow never-ending lawsuits after permits are granted. Neither the recent Legislature nor our congressional delegation has addressed this issue, so here we sit.

Energy security

When TransCanada’s XL Pipeline passes through Montana, it will pick up 100,000 bbd of Bakken oil and then carry a total of 830,000 barrels per day headed south.

As it picks up more oil from domestic stocks, the capacity will be a minimum of 1.1 million barrels per day delivered to Gulf state refineries for further refining and export to foreign lands – unless we match the world price – and the supply has not been contracted for. 

The $10 billion expansion of the Motiva Refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, is a prime example. Originally announced as being built to handle Saudi crude delivered to the United States, it now is admitted that the Motiva expansion was designed to handle Canadian crude to serve the growing Latin American diesel fuel market.

The Motiva Refinery is a 50-50 venture of the Dutch and Saudi royal families. Their two refineries on the Gulf of Mexico can alone process more than 50 percent of the XL pipeline’s capacity for export. The balance of the Port Arthur complex can easily handle the rest.


The general contractor for the construction of the XL will be Halliburton, and it will be a union job. The contract calls for the contractors to be able to bring 50 percent of their employees with them from the state or country they come from.

The contract also calls for a rollback of the last two wage agreements, so after the usual union payroll deductions, the pre-tax wage for a union laborer will be a whopping $16.90 per hour in Montana. The Montana portion is expected to last for 90 days. Are we now a Third World nation begging for development?


Why would it not be better to fast track the capacity to build the necessary refineries to serve the U.S. market with North American oil and reduce transatlantic shipments from unfriendly sources and achieve real energy and economic security? Why not allow the value-added jobs of building and manning new refineries to serve American families and employers?

Why export any petroleum until our domestic needs are met? After all, it is a matter of national security and jobs.

Brad Molnar served eight years on the Montana Public Service Commission and eight years in the Montana Legislature.


Last Updated on Thursday, 06 June 2013 20:30

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Better energy options than Bakken may exist



If you travel behind the “redwood curtain” to the Northern California town of Arcata, you’ll find on the campus of Humboldt State University a place called the Schatz Energy Research Center (SERC). It is where my son Tom works.

As a child, Tom created a “mad scientist laboratory” in our basement and even hosted a similarly themed Halloween party (which might have been more successful had he remembered to invite his friends). I was impressed by the way he could take random bits of hardware, a few batteries and a handful of LEDs and create devices that looked complex and actually worked. So I can understand how he — now an electrical and environmental resource engineer — is at home at SERC.

Housed in a new building that does not at all resemble a mad scientist’s domain, SERC is, in fact, quite pleasant. But, inside, it holds many secrets that might dislodge the fossil fuels industry from its place in Montana’s economy, a place, I might add, that is less significant than one might think. According to both the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the majority of “non-farm jobs” in the state are not in “Mining and Logging,” which ranks 10th. Of course, energy booms can pump up other employment, but let’s put things in perspective.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 7.4 billion barrels of oil may be recoverable from the Bakken oil play in North Dakota and Montana. That’s about 27 years’ worth of activity (according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune). The entire play equals a little over a year’s worth of oil at current rates of U.S. consumption — 18.8 million barrels per day, or so says the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Not much to base a long-term future on.

At any rate, what makes SERC so exciting is that the engineers and scientists who work there use, from what I could see, a fairly limited range of equipment to develop simple (but not at all simplistic), community-based energy solutions. In one project with worldwide implications, standards have been designed to encourage people in Africa and now Asia to forgo the expensive and hazardous kerosene lantern in favor of lighting that functions well and lasts — and that happens to be powered by solar cells and other “stand-alone” sources.

Such ingenious and stable solutions to energy needs empower individuals, often require only small investments of time and money, and create stability. For example, Tom has helped install a gridshare project for a village in Bhutan, one utilizing an already existing if now inadequate micro-hydroelectric system and a series of hand-assembled electronic devices (my son suggests calling them “thingamajigs”) that warn cooks when the village as a whole is drawing too much power. By waiting a half hour to start dinner, an individual householder avoids brownouts and under-cooked meals.  

Another research interest at SERC is the efficient use of biomass through on-site torrefaction, in which, according to Humboldt State University’s news website, “vegetative waste ... is heated without oxygen to temperatures between 250 and 300 degrees Celsius. ... ‘Often, the slash from logging or the residue from fuel reduction cuts just gets burned. It’s a waste of energy and it adds to pollution,’ says Schatz Lab co-director Peter Lehman.” Torrefaction produces a convenient transportable product that I perhaps incorrectly envision as biomass briquettes you might use for barbecuing your dinner.   

Hydrogen fuel cell technology was the initial research focus at SERC, and, certainly, riding around Arcata in a hydrogen fuel cell Toyota SUV seemed no different and no more dangerous than riding in a gas-powered Highlander. According to Tom, “It takes more energy to make hydrogen than you get from burning it or using it in a fuel cell,” but hydrogen can be produced (currently at a little greater cost than if fossil fuels are involved) using renewable energy. Moreover, the emissions from a hydrogen car consist of water.

Clearly, centralized systems and fossil fuel dependence are not inevitable, though they are what we know. However, with emphasis on conservation and continued research, the next 20 years could form the transition into a more sustainable, community-centered way of life. Much of the technology is there, frankly. What is lacking is the will to use it.

Corporations must, understandably, cling to their steamer trunks of wealth while the post peak-oil ship goes down. But, unfortunately, our politicians favor the corporate players. By spreading nightmarish fantasies about power-crazed environmentalists and socialism, or by announcing, as Brian Schweitzer has, that the Bakken oil play is a “millionaire maker,” they ironically encourage dependence. While I begrudge no one the opportunity to make a bundle working in the Bakken and while I know that it has been a godsend for some, the fact is that by relying on it we are delaying and perhaps even forgoing the development of a healthier, more sustainable, and more democratic society.

Though it seems counterintuitive, it doesn’t take a mad scientist to see that our real riches lie within ourselves and our children.

Cara Chamberlain teaches at Rocky Mountain College.


Last Updated on Thursday, 30 May 2013 19:53

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Leprechauns, fiscal cliffs, sequesters, unicorns


Brad Molnar

The first week of 2013 saw John Boehner, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, decrying his capitulation to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” For months, Sunday morning political talk shows had been parroting President Obama about the dire consequences to America’s middle class, our military, our nation’s infrastructure, and the European Union if American did not increase its debt limit.

Who doubted that moderate Republicans led by John Boehner would cave? They had racked up much of the debt they were decrying. Congressional Republicans and Democrats have shown the same lack of willingness to rescind the debt-financed subsidies or programs they have created.

With both sides equally promoting welfare in its various forms, the end was known before the votes were tallied. The stock market strengthened as the media-generated fiscal cliff and/or Obama’s 2 percent spending cuts (sequestration) approached.

Included in the extension of the debt limit on our already $16 trillion debt was extending the Bush-era tax income cuts to 98.5 percent of the population (but raising the payroll and investment taxes on all of the population). Our leaders also gave $4 million in “green” tax incentives to buy battery powered motorcycles and $59 million to algae growers.

And they gave $70 million in tax breaks to NASCAR, $222 million in tax rebates to rum distillers because it only causes “buzzed” driving, an additional $331 million for railroad owners to maintain tracks they may not own, and $430 million to encourage Hollywood to make movies.

These vital national interests were pikers, barely a billion dollars in increased debt transferred to middle class taxpayers in return for increasing the debt limit for old expenditures. The total two year new debt acquisition in the name of debt payment was $100,000,000,000. Much of this went to support Sen. Jon Tester’s and Sen. Max Baucus’ favorite charities: Chinese and Spanish wind mill manufacturers. The net amount (10-year estimate) added to our debt while originally seeking to finance our debt was $300,000,000,000.

The new taxes amounted to 1 percent of the GDP and the new spending amounted to 3 percent of GDP. Republicans offered no amendments to strike any of the new spending. But Speaker Boehner did say, OK, but just this one last time. You guys cut something or we will “sequester” in March.

We ”sequestered” March 1, triggering automatic 2 percent budget reductions. That comes to $45 billion for the balance of this fiscal year or $81 billion for two full years. According to President Obama, this is “dire” and “Armageddon.”

The press has had a field day fear mongering. “Fewer food inspectors causing health risk concerns.” “Fewer airport security personnel will cause long waits and fewer flights.” “Beartooth Pass snow plowing delayed one week costing gateway communities $10 million.”

Should the press not be asking, “Mr. President, not a single subsidy to any foreign or domestic industry, nor has any foreign aid to any foreign country, has been reduced. Only services to American citizens. Is this by design, Mr. President?”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, faced a $3 billion deficit. He made structural changes to the collective bargaining rules, state employee retirement and health contributions, and went with bonus pay for performance. These structural changes transformed the Wisconsin $3 billion deficit to a $300 million surplus and lowered the property taxes that fund Wisconsin schools. Yes, it created political upheaval, but voters supported Walker.

Neighboring Illinois has the worst budget deficit of any state: $44 billion, the same amount as the fiscal year sequester. Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, demonstrating his presidential qualities, advanced the idea of borrowing the money to pay for his deficit.

Someone advised that to do so without structural changes, like Wisconsin’s, he would owe the old principal and the interest and still have to service the new debt. Proving he is not presidential material, Quinn dropped his idea. Instead, showing he could be like bipartisan U.S. Senate leadership, Quinn raised personal income taxes 67 percent and corporate income taxes 46 percent. Illinois has $8 billion in bills due but not payable and still has a $44 billion deficit.

Congress and Obama could have chosen to emulate either Walker or Quinn. They chose Quinn. If, without smoke and mirrors, the sequester actually saves $81 billion, the savings will be consumed in exactly three weeks since our debt continues to grow by $3.9 billion per day. Barring further extensions of the debt limit, we will again be out of money on May 18 and face a government “shutdown.” The financial markets are so sure of a Republican capitulation the Dow has again cracked 14,000.

Brad Molnar of Laurel served two terms on the Montana Public Service Commission.

Last Updated on Thursday, 28 March 2013 00:10

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Like bison, family farmers also endangered



Artificial intelligence may one day replace carbon-based organisms, a bit of progress sought by researchers who feel that “life” can be fully encapsulated in complex algorithms, that it will be more orderly in silicon. Such thinking — alarming to some, perhaps — might, in fact, be considered “necrophilous,” to use a term analyzed by the German psychologist Erich Fromm. As he saw it, increasing orderliness and mechanization is authoritarian, dangerous and life-denying.

In the 10 or 15 years since I read Fromm, his term has become part of my own descriptive vocabulary. Applying it can, however, become a complex exercise. For instance, such actions as the raising of animals to slaughter and then eat can be considered as either life-affirming (if the emphasis is on providing food for humans) or life-denying (if the emphasis is on the non-humans).

Unfortunately, the national economy (as a sort of necrophilous bogeyman) relies on a variety of authoritarian forces to create profit and loss, and, at times, coerce anyone, even a conscientious rancher dedicated to sustainable methods of husbandry, into behaviors that are almost entirely necrophilous.

The feedlot is a good example of a meat-raising endeavor tilting heavily toward authoritarian centralization, as cattle are gathered in huge numbers and stuffed with indigestible corn and animal by-products that could never nourish them even if they miraculously escaped the meat-packing plant.

But this discussion is not primarily about cattle. It is about their wild brothers and sisters.

Last spring I attended the Billings scoping meeting hosted by Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department to assess public attitudes toward the release of wild bison in selected areas of the state. I was not surprised to find myself outnumbered by anti-bison forces. However, our small discussion group (split 4-3) achieved a cordiality that I found quite life-affirming. No, we did not agree, but we respected each other.

As we were still listing our various concerns about such bureaucratic abstractions as “opportunities” and “management challenges,” the other groups in the room seemed to be finished. A few anti-bison activists, who had already registered their views, wandered over to us, stood behind our chairs, and steadfastly refused to sit down or become part of our group — or keep their ideas to themselves. One particularly vehement woman waved her hands inches from my face and began to galvanize the previously kind and polite folks with whom I had been engaged in reasoned discussion.

Soon I was facing paranoia about bison racing through the streets of Billings and spreading brucellosis. This radicalization was alarming and, in a measure, at least, physically threatening. No one was talking about putting a bison on every lawn or every acre, but you’d have thought so to hear our newcomers talk.

One member of our original group tried a reasonable approach. Cattle, he said, were constantly straying onto his land, he’d been in a cow-truck accident that almost killed him, and cattle might potentially introduce mad cow disease, yet he didn’t fear and loathe cattle. No dice.

These itinerant group-infiltrating people unremittingly hated bison!

As I drove home, bemused and awestruck, I began to wonder about the source of their hatred. More than most, bison are life-affirming creatures — for the native prairie and the traditional indigenous peoples who love them and once depended on them for food (and, indeed, for life and spiritual fulfillment).

But bison put a gigantic glitch in the necrophilous project of American “progress,” which seeks to mechanize, rationalize, and privatize. Bison represent all that has been conquered. To return them would be to call into question the entire authoritarian hierarchy in which land ownership and profit create power, in which animals like cattle can be turned into commodities to create more landownership and more power.

Of course, the ranching way of life is also antithetical to progress. Why produce grass-fed beef in Montana when you can create vast meat factories for a fraction of the cost in Iowa? Family ranchers, it strikes me, are almost as anachronistic as bison, and just like bison they don’t cotton much to hierarchies and commodification; independent ranchers and wild bison are true revolutionaries (not that either intends to be).

I doubt the algorithms of ranchers and bison will ever be translatable into orderly artificial intelligence. Moreover, both are troublesome to the mechanized progress Americans have been taught to depend on. And both are endangered.

Montanans should make common cause with the bison and find practical ways to return a hardy life-affirming force to at least some of the North American prairie. It is in our own interest to stop the mechanization of our land, food and cultures. Our state legislators should vote against two damaging bills up before the current session. HB 249 and SB 143 would turn wild bison into “pests” that could be essentially shot on sight. But why not, as the saying goes, choose life?

Cara Chamberlain teaches at Rocky Mountain College.

Last Updated on Friday, 22 March 2013 15:02

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Pastor gives reminder of reason for the season



There is nothing like the Christmas season! Here are a few of my favorite things about Christmas time: Living in Montana where a white Christmas is almost a sure thing. Drinking eggnog. Listening to Christmas music (for a while anyway). Shopping for gifts. Wondering what your loved ones are going to get you. Visiting friends and family.

But let’s think about gifts for a second. Who does not like getting a gift? I am not talking about “the sweater” that gets re-gifted year after year. I certainly don’t mean those gifts that you try your hardest to look sincerely thankful for.

But there are gifts that show someone loved you enough to study you carefully for a while. Someone listened to you when you said what you wanted and looked carefully for the perfect gift. Then someone took the time and spent the money to get it.

It is giving and getting these kinds of gifts that makes Christmas so great for everyone. But the gifts under the tree are not the gifts that Christmas is all about.

Christmas is not all about the music, the eggnog, the snacks, the food, the snacks, the food, (repeated on purpose for the sake of redundancy) the family, the friends, the decorations, the shopping, the money (the golden quarter for retailers), or any of that.

Christmas is all about and gets its start from the most thoughtful gift of love that anyone has ever given or gotten.

This gift was not given by your Aunt Bertha, your cousin John, or even your parents. This gift had its source in the Greatest Giver: God. The Bible says in Isaiah 9:6, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

God knows us better than we know ourselves. We could say, from our point of view, that He studied us. God listened to us. God spent the time and sent the best He had to you and me. It was not like God just sent His Son from heaven to earth. That was a great sacrifice in itself, but it was just the beginning. He also allowed His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to pay the entire penalty for your sins and mine.

If you have never accepted this gift, there is no time like the present (no pun intended). John 1:12 says, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” You can receive Jesus Christ just the same way you receive a gift at Christmas time. Listen to what Romans 6:23 says: “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

God has given this gift freely to anyone who will take it. Listen to what Jesus said in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

How can you turn down the Greatest Gift from the Greatest Giver Who loves you more than you love yourself? There is no better gift than the gift of everlasting life from the Son of God.

So if you receive God’s gift to you, you still might not get the Christmas presents you wanted. But you will certainly have the Gift you needed the most. The Lord Jesus Christ, more than any other gift, is truly the Gift that keeps on giving.

Aubrey Kincaid is pastor of Charity Baptist Church, 24 Nightingale Road in Lockwood. He can be reached at 860-2755 or at

Last Updated on Saturday, 29 December 2012 11:47

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