As the United States grapples with the issue of energy over the next two decades, Montana will play a crucial role, a renewable-energy expert said SaturdayRandy Udall shared his thoughts as keynote speaker at a luncheon during the 37th annual Northern Plains Resource Council meeting in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Montana is one of only two states in the country that is self-sufficient when it comes to the fossil fuels coal, oil and natural gas, said Udall, son of former Arizona congressman, Mo Udall.
“Montana is to fossil fuel as a piñata is to candy,” he told his audience. “You guys are loaded up.”
“The largest threat to the environment is Montana will be asked to meet part of the nation’s needs,” Udall said. “It will be a difficult balancing act.”
Udall also pointed out that Montana has another world-class source of energy, wind. It shares that in common with a small Danish island called Samso, he said.
Udall told the group about a man named Soren Hermansen, a resident of the island who was named a 2008 hero of the environment by Time magazine. Hermansen recently spent several days with Udall in Colorado, where Udall lives.
Hermansen, Udall said, rallied the 4,000 people who lived on Samso, many of them conservative farmers, to invest in the hard work of switching from a dependence on fossil fuel to relying on wind energy. That included investing in the construction of large land-based turbines, and then even larger offshore turbines that actually produce a surplus of energy.
“What intrigues me about it is not so much their technology, but that they had a dream and they had the courage to pursue their dream,” he said.
He believes Montana should take advantage of its abundance of wind energy.
“I’m convinced Montana should plant wind turbines as if they were trees in the coming decades.”
Udall believes the United States is living in the most fascinating period of American history. Last summer it experienced the steepest rise in oil prices and then one of the steepest decreases.
On top of that, the country is using 1 million barrels of oil less than it did a year ago. People are starting to reduce their usage, he said.
They’ve also selected a new leader to guide the country. In the midst of these tough financial times, President-elect Barack Obama “has been hired to reboot prosperity,” Udall said.
The question is what sort of energy will allow the country to do that – and what place will Montana have in that discussion.
Udall shared some startling statistics about energy usage. Of all the fuel humans have used in their history, half of it has been consumed since 1980, he said.
In the United States, we burn one British therman unit per day per person, he said. That’s equivalent to 8 gallons of gas per person, 100 pounds of coal or 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas.
Udall pointed out how much can change in a century. In the early 1900s, the Wright brothers, bicycle mechanics, unlocked the secret of how to fly a plane. In 1975, 80 percent of Americans had never flown on a commercial flight, Udall said. This year, 8 million flights have carried 600 million passengers.
What made that growth possible, as well as the growth of the United States since World War II has been the availability of cheap fuel, he said. And though gas prices have gone back down, they won’t stay that way.
About two-thirds of the world’s oil supplies have been consumed. At a previous talk to college students, Udall demonstrated that fact in a slide by showing four cans of beers consumed and only two left to drink.
He again flashed that sobering illustration on a screen Saturday.
“That’s our petroleum dilemma,” Udall said. “We have to share two beers with ourselves, our children and all the generations to come.”
With countries such as China, which was a net oil exporter until a decade ago, aggressively moving to secure oil supplies, the problem will only continue to grow, he said. So, too, will the energy costs of producing energy.
Figuring out ways to reduce energy usage will be necessary, Udall said. On the supply side, it will be important to focus on energy sources that have a high energy return.
Udall applauded the work of the Northern Plains Resource Council for its work since its inception of helping promote land stewardship.
“I am stunned by the courage you’ve had collectively, by your endurance over the past 37 years,” he said. “You have always fought long odds.”
He cited the country of Iceland as one which recently has been on the brink of bankruptcy. Over the past 15 years, the country has made a number of decisions that has weakened it financially and environmentally, he said, and the people allowed it to happen.
“Representative democracy fails when citizens let it fail,” Udall said.