Montana split over candidates' energy plans

GREAT FALLS, Mont. -- Wind farm development has many Montanans turning green. Now the question is how many of them will turn blue when they vote for president Tuesday.

Since 2006, 178 giant turbines have sprouted in farm fields at four commercial facilities churning out a combined 270 megawatts of electricity, with even more projects in the planting stages, according to the state Department of Commerce.

Energy policy is front and center for presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, and Montana, where wind and coal are equally abundant, is paying close attention.

"They are all promising alternative energy," says Peter Wipf, who says he tends to vote Republican but remains undecided.

Wipf lives at the Martinsdale Hutterite Colony, which is 130 miles south of here in the heart of rural Montana. The colony, communally owned, has leased farmland to Texas-based Horizon Wind Energy, Wipf says.

The 60-megawatt first phase calls for erecting 27 to 33 turbines on colony and adjacent state land; there will be a possible later expansion to 200 megawatts, according to Joy Potter, a project manager for Horizon Wind Energy.

Obama's policies supporting renewable energy are striking a chord with many Montanans who are boosting energy produced from wind, solar and biofuels, says Theresa Keaveny, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters in Billings. McCain, she adds, has consistently opposed alternative energy and supports more oil drilling, "which Montanans don't want."

Montana has 120 billion tons of coal reserves, the most in the nation, and each year 41 million tons is shipped by train to coal-fired generating plants around the country, according to the Montana Coal Council. McCain's "all of the above" approach, which includes using coal, oil, nuclear and alternative energy, appeals more to Montanans, says Erik Iverson, the chairman of the Montana Republican Party.

"The bottom line is, who are you going to trust to get that coal out of the ground and create jobs?" Iverson says.

The Big Sky state has voted Republican red since 1992 in races for the White House. An American Research Group poll conducted Oct. 6-8 gave Republican John McCain a 50% to 45% edge over Democrat Barack Obama. But a Montana State University-Billings poll conducted Oct. 16-20 put Obama ahead 44% to 40%; 10% are undecided.

All the polls show Obama doing better here than Democrats have in recent elections. George W. Bush outpolled John Kerry 59% to 39% in 2004 and beat Al Gore 58% to 33% in 2000. A Democrat hasn't taken the state since Bill Clinton won in 1992. Before that, the last Democrat to win was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

"Montana is not a red state when it comes to the Legislature and statewide office," Keaveny says, "so at what point do we quit calling it a red state?"

Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who touted the state's "clean and green" energy agenda and Obama in a speech at the August Democratic National Convention in Denver, is running for re-election and is leading Republican challenger Roy Brown 60% to 27%, according to the latest Montana State-Billings poll.

Democrat Jon Tester narrowly unseated longtime incumbent Republican Conrad Burns for a U.S. Senate seat in 2006.

Now Obama is trying to shift the state's political winds for president. He's visited five times — McCain has yet to campaign here. Obama has 19 staffed offices across the state, while McCain shares six field offices with the Montana Republican Party. Bud Clinch, executive director of the Montana Coal Council, says he worries if too much focus is placed on renewable energy, federal funding for carbon-capture technology at greenhouse-gas emitting coal-fired power plants will be neglected.

Sandra Broesder, a commissioner in Pondera County who is allowing a wind developer to prospect on her ranch, is backing McCain. Business-minded Republicans are pushing hard for wind development, which will increase the tax base while generating jobs and attracting new families to sparsely populated rural Montana, she says.

"The support, either for or against wind development, has more to do with personal impacts than any political ideology," she says.

"It's interesting Obama hasn't given up," says Craig Wilson, a political scientist at Montana State University-Billings. With fewer than a million residents, Montana has only three electoral votes. Wilson suspects Obama is attempting to prove to Western states and the nation, " 'I'm a credible candidate.' " He's predicting a close finish.

"We can win in places people might not expect," says Caleb Weaver, Obama's Montana communications director. The Montana Republican Party's Iverson says the Obama camp is spending money in Montana to bait McCain to campaign here, which would take resources away from battleground states.

Puckett reports for the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune