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Energy leaders meet in Billings to discuss future of fossil-fuel industry

Posted at 4:45 PM, Apr 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-05 18:45:01-04

BILLINGS – Leaders from the area’s fossil fuel industry lobbied Congressman Greg Gianforte Thursday in Billings for help navigating federal regulations.

The discussion focused on what changes can be made, specifically to federal processes, to speed up permitting at the round table discussion, which featured representatives of coal and oil and gas companies.

One topic was cutting back on what many called unnecessary over-regulation by the federal government. Todd O’Hair of Cloud Peak Energy said businesses are having to plan 10-15 years in advance due to the time it takes for federal permits to go through. In addition, the permitting process can cost 100 times more on federal land because of stiffer environmental requirements.

“We’re asking for a lifeline, not a handout,” said Tom Hauptman, an independent oil and gas producer in Montana. “We’re asking for just reasonable regulation.”

O’Hair said that Montana has a lot of coal in the ground, but high costs and limited transport options make accessing worldwide markets a challenge. The coal industry has been seeking for years to build new export docks in Washington and Oregon but faced stiff opposition from environmental groups.

“Coal generating plants are being built in other countries knowing they will be able to get coal from somewhere,” said O’Hair. “We just want to be a piece of that pie.”

The group maintained that the coal operations in the United States are likely the cleanest in the world, and that there is a way forward for coal, oil and gas while protecting the environment.

“I am a native Montanan,” said Hauptman. “My children were raised here, I love Montana, I love the outdoors, I would never do anything to hurt this state. We just want to say, let’s work in partnership with the federal government and not have an adversarial position.”

Hauptman said it is not just businesses that would benefit from more "common-sense" regulations, but the state as well. A percentage of royalties from coal mining on federal land go back to Montana’s budget and help pay for local projects. 

"Let’s work in partnership to get the common objective,” said Hauptman. “Maintain the quality of life that we have in Montana with the quality of jobs that were talking about. Because the jobs, whether it be oil and gas or coal,  these people are looking at, with benefits, over $100,000 a year. That is big money in Montana. Those are the kind of jobs we need and we need those kind of jobs if we’re going to keep our kids at home."

One of the representatives at the meeting was Jesse Noel, the director of environmental and regulatory affairs for U.S. operations of the Westmoreland Coal Co. While the company has indicated in its 2017 earnings report that it may no longer be financially viable, Noel maintained its three Montana mines remain profitable.

Noel said the company prides themselves on a clean operation with as little environmental impact as possible.

"We’re going to do things in an environmentally friendly way,” said Noel. “I invite people to come see our place. You’re going to walk out onto our property and not even tell that coal was mined from that area."

Noel reiterated the same sentiment of the rest of the group, the most important thing is keeping jobs in Montana.

"What we want to do is keep those jobs where they’re at in Montana,” said Noel. “That’s what is important to us."