What role will coal play in Montana’s future?

The estimated 120 billion tons of coal that lie beneath the Montana soil constitute the nation’s largest coal reserves, although actual production in the Treasure State is only one-tenth of coal production in Wyoming, even though Montana has nearly twice the coal reserves of our neighbor to the south. Most coal mined in the state is low-sulfur sub-bituminous in the Powder River Basin, primarily in Big Horn and Rosebud Counties

New coal plants face a daunting set of hurdles before they produce their first watt of electricity. Although more than 150 coal-fired plants have been proposed for the United States in the past decade, only 10 have been built, with another 25 under construction. Almost 60 have been cancelled outright, often due to concerns from increasing regulation designed to head off global warming, skyrocketing construction costs, and a reluctance by Wall Street firms to finance what is becoming an increasingly unpopular form of energy investment.

Nevertheless, Gov. Schweitzer continues to believe coal development will play an important role in Montana’s energy future. According to his website, “Montana is actively pursuing development of ultra-clean coal technology in the areas of our major coal deposits in central and eastern Montana.” The governor envisions using Montana coal to produce syngas, a mixture of gases that can be made into liquid fuel, burned in power plants, or refined into natural gas. Supposedly, pollutants such as mercury and carbon dioxide can be removed from the gas.

A so-called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plant uses a process developed in Germany prior to World War II to convert coal into liquid fuels. South Africa reportedly produces 300,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline each day from this type plant. More information on his plan can be found at



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