Montana Week 1: Painful Energy  by Sara Vargo

Cycling into Ryegate, MT

My legs are burning, sweat collects in beads on my forehead and cars whiz by me at 60 and above. My labored breathing seems to fall into rhythm with the sounds of passing cars and I have to will myself to keep my thumb glued to my handlebars and not shove it out in silent prayer someone will pick me up. Midwest and westerners are both known for being warm and hospitable so I can’t imagine it’d be too long before a trucker takes pity on me and lets me into their cab. Instead, I ignore my screaming quads, put my head down and push forward. THIS is bike touring.

Although this is only the very beginning of a month long journey across Montana, I already feel like I’ve learned a lot about this grand state, both socially, and regarding energy.

Things I’ve learned so far:

  • Montana “failed” at deregulating their energy distribution system and since 2007 have returned to a vertically integrated one:  The current debate raging in the state is over net-metering. Net-metering allows those that want to produce their own energy to fairly connect to the grid and be able to use baseline energy provided by fossil fuels and also provide their excess energy to the rest of the energy system. Major Montana energy providers are making it difficult for net-metering to be easily accessible but as more and more Montanans want to remove themselves from the typical energy system, residents are becoming more vocal about their desire for a change.
  • Hydroelectric dams are relatively common (and cheap) energy for the state but present a multitude of problems regarding aquatic life and ecological habitats:  At Northwestern Energy, Lisa Perry told us a friend of hers in fishery services was working with fish ladders to increase the population of a certain trout species in a hydroelectric dam facility. Since the introduction of her ladder, only eight total trout have successfully made it through the dam to their mating grounds, proving how endangered the species is and the possible implications of water energy. Some hydroelectric power is produced using “run of the river” dams which do not hold water back. This is actually more common than reservoir dams in Montana and I had thought it was relatively rare. Though the aquatic habitats can still be threatened, there is (arguably) less threat here than in reservoir dams that do not allow water flow
  • Oil spills happen in rivers too!:  At Alexis Bonogofsky’s ranch outside of Billings, she detailed her perspective of the 2011 Exxon oil spill into the Yellowstone River, where her home sits just above. The crude oil that spilled from the river during unusually high water levels covered a large part of her livestock’s grazing land and has lasting implications, even today, including sterile land, overrun weeds and lasting oil rings on the trees near the river. This was new to me, as I previously thought oil spills were only a concern in oceans. Considering river currents move just as fast, sometimes faster, than ocean currents, the implications of river oil spills can be just as massive. The miles of crude oil pipeline that run through rivers in the U.S, and particularly the American west, make the likelihood of river oil spills being just as big of a threat to aquatic life as oceanic spills. Alexis has since devoted her life to preserving tribal and natural lands in the eastern part of the state and plans to someday build an off the grid house on her property.
  • Signal Peak Coal Mine mines 90% of its coal for international use:  Montana holds massive coal reserves, larger than the state of Wyoming’s, but has chosen not to extract this resource as fully as Wyoming, so far. While overseas nations, mostly located in Asia, are still demanding the mined coal, the current decrease in domestic demand is a positive thing from an environmental perspective, but negative for the nearby towns and the state’s economy. Signal Peak has been implementing usage of Waste Disposal systems, attempting to reduce the amount of waste product produced at the mine while at the same time reclaiming surrounding areas of the mine to their natural state.

While this certainly isn’t all I’ve learned, these are things I found particularly interesting.

Using only our own energy to fuel our course on energy and climate change has created a unique perspective on the discussions and issues regarding energy production and distribution. Though our class is based in and focused on Montana, it is easy to apply what we’re learning to a national and global scale. While riding our bikes everywhere we go, the use (and overuse) of energy becomes more prevalent. Though Montana, and especially Missoula, is full of bikers, there are vastly more cars; this is also comparable at a national and international scale. Montana is a centralized state, meaning trucks pass by at higher rates than, say, a coastal state.

Because we are on bikes, the disconnect between us and fossil fuels is more obvious and easier to understand. I started counting the cars that passed by me and did some quick math: if 16 cars pass by me in 1 mile, than in 20 miles 320 cars will pass by and in 700 miles… a lot of cars and trucks will be guzzling gas on any given day. Of course, anyone could consider this without traveling across a state on a bike, but here we can really feel the difference, for me in my quads and lower back.

Though we’ve read and so far learned a good amount about the opposition to new coal mines, crude oil pipelines and fossil-fuel powered plants, we’ve heard little about reducing gasoline consumption. Gas is also a form of energy and an increasingly used one in a world of growing convenience and fast-paced lifestyle. Why limit our energy conservation practices to residential, home usage? Let’s extend that to our transportation. Take the slower route, powered by legs or increase public transit use and carpooling. Small steps can make a difference in the home and on the freeway, even if it means tired thighs and sweaty palms.

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One thought on “Montana Week 1: Painful Energy  by Sara Vargo

  1. Excellent post, Sara. Even former proponents now admit that energy market deregulation was an expensive failure whose worst effects are still playing out in the form of much higher costs to in-state residential consumers. Just like the coal from Signal Peak, almost all the benefits are exported to places far from Montana.

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