Clean | Green | Sustainable

U of Montana suspends biomass plant proposal, apologizes for “eco-terrorist” comment

Posted by Matthew Koehler on December 3, 2011

Last fall, when news broke that the University of Montana was planning to construct a $16 million wood-burning biomass plant on campus, the WildWest Institute got together with some retired UM professors and University neighborhood homeowners and began researching the proposal.

It quickly became apparent that many important questions and concerns were going unanswered by UM officials, some of whom seemed to favor running a PR campaign over a transparent, open public process. So, to get to the bottom of what was really happening, we conducted an open records search of UM’s biomass project file, which included poring over hundreds of electronic communications between UM officials and biomass company executives.

What became so clear and so very troubling is that much of what we discovered in these internal documents turned out to be the exact opposite of what UM officials were telling the public.

For example, we turned up documents showing that the wood-burning biomass plant would actual increase emissions, pollution and particulate matter over the existing natural gas system. In fact, as was later reported in the Missoulian, UM’s wood-burning biomass plant would release the emissions equivalent of roughly 130 woodstoves burning on campus.

Anyone living in Missoula knows all too well about our poor air quality and fragile airshed. The American Lung Association has regularly given Missoula County an F-grade in their annual “State of the Air” report, although this spring we were upgraded to a grade of D. An improvement yes, but still nothing to gloat about.

Especially vulnerable to increased air pollution and particulates are children, the elderly and those living with asthma and reduced respiratory function. This is especially true during the winter months, when nasty inversions and air quality alerts are common in our valley. So think for a moment what a UM biomass plant pumping out the emissions equivalent of 130 woodstoves on campus would look like.

Equally as troubling was what we uncovered regarding the economics of this project. To put it mildly, it’s been difficult to get an accurate assessment from UM of the biomass plant’s up-front and long-term costs, something all Montana taxpayers deserve. For starters, we noticed in the project file that the cost of the project went from $10 million in April 2010 to $16 million by the end of the year.

When we carefully combed through UM’s financial pro forma, we also noticed that the biomass plant would need nearly $27 million for additional operation and maintenance expenses over the existing natural gas system during just the first 40 years of operation.

The pro forma was also troubling in other aspects. It over-estimated the cost of natural gas, while under-estimating the cost of wood fuel trucked to campus. As natural gas prices continued to drop sharply over the past year, UM refused to change their economic analysis to reflect this reality, despite numerous and repeated requests from the public.

So too, when UM’s attempted to secure bids for wood fuel from timber suppliers this summer, the deadline came and went without a single timber company responding to UM’s request because they could not match UM’s significantly rosy wood fuel cost projections. Again, UM refused to change their economic analysis to reflect this reality.

Well, yesterday, Christmas came earlier for those who value clean air and not wasting taxpayer dollars in tight economic times. UM President Royce Engstrom took to the podium in Turner Hall to announce that the University of Montana has suspended their wood-burning biomass plant indefinitely.

President Engstrom cited a number of reasons for suspending the biomass project, which I must point out, are the same issues and concerns that have continually been raised over the past year by WildWest Institute, Alliance for Wild Rockies and a handful of concerned citizens.

President Engstrom also offered a public apology for the recent statement made by UM Vice President Bob Duringer, in which Mr. Duringer claimed that those of us concerned with aspects of the biomass project were engaged in a “lower level of eco-terrorism.”

Finally, during the press conference it was also revealed that the University paid over half a million dollars – $541,000 to be exact – to an out-of-state consulting firm for the planning costs associated with this now suspended biomass project. Too bad the University couldn’t turn by the clock and put that half a million dollars towards some tried and true methods of reducing carbon footprints focused on conservation and energy efficiency.

As a University of Montana alum I’m pleased that UM finally pulled the plug on this wood-burning biomass plant, even if the planning process over the past year involved some unnecessary frustrations, headaches and $541,000.

At the end of the day, Missoula’s air quality – and Montana taxpayer wallets – were protected. And those are things that are worth standing up for all day, every day.

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