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Democrats Have Eyes on Red-State Governor

Some are sizing up Montana's Schweitzer for 2008. But his focus now is on a campaign for a coal-based fuel.

April 12, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

BUTTE, Mont. — Just about everywhere Gov. Brian Schweitzer goes in Montana -- or elsewhere, for that matter -- he brings along a dog, a black rock and a small vial of clear, nearly odorless fluid.

The dog is his 2-year-old border collie, Jag, an obedient, camera-friendly companion who helps fill out the down-home image honed by the Democratic governor, who wears jeans, bolo ties and boots to most events.

The rock is a lump of coal, about 120 billion tons of which sits just beneath the lonesome plains of eastern Montana. And the fluid is a synthetic fuel derived from the coal.

Coals-to-fuel, says the governor, a soils scientist who lived in the Middle East for eight years in the 1980s, will be "the greatest boon to engineering and technology since NASA was created" in the late 1950s. With Montana coal, the U.S. could unleash itself from "the sheiks, the dictators, the rats and crooks around the world who are bent on destroying our way of life."

The burly, jolly Schweitzer could just as well be selling snake oil, to hear some of his critics tell it. One environmental group dismisses his promise of earth-friendly coal development this way: "The term 'clean coal' is like saying 'safe cigarettes.' "

But while the coal remains largely untapped, the 50-year-old Schweitzer is not going unnoticed.

A Democrat in a conservative state that gave George W. Bush nearly 60% of the vote in the last two presidential elections, Schweitzer is riding a wave of popularity here: 68% approval ratings in one recent independent poll. Another poll, by the Montana Chamber of Commerce, found that 57% believed the state government was headed in the right direction, whereas only 47% felt that way about the state's economy.

Schweitzer's success rankles GOP leaders here -- "all hat and no cattle," one says of his showmanship; another calls him "a loose cannon."

But it intrigues some Democrats, who wonder whether Schweitzer is the sort of red-state national candidate who could help the party break beyond the "blue zone" of electoral votes that has kept it out of the White House in the last two elections. (Democrats have won along the West Coast, and in the Northeast and Great Lakes region, but endured a virtual shutout in the South, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain states.)

Schweitzer is one of several red-state Democratic leaders who may emerge as either presidential or vice presidential contenders. Others include Mark R. Warner, who just finished his term-limited four-year stint as governor of Virginia with strong approval ratings that helped his lieutenant governor win the race to succeed him, and Janet Napolitano, Arizona's governor.

Democrats may well consider someone to "break the mold" on their national ticket, said Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan pollster. "There certainly is a feeling that they need someone who can really relate to voters in that huge belt of red."

So far, Schweitzer certainly seems to have demonstrated one natural politician's gift: that of being able to frame the question. No matter what he gets asked about, whether the war in Iraq or gay marriage or abortion rights, he somehow manages to point his answer toward a single word: "coal."

"Why, if we just started with that," he said of his coal program recently as his plane bumped around the state, "it will lead to all kinds of other good things. Energy independence .... will create jobs. It will spread to education, to developing engineers and to all kinds of other investments."

It is indeed possible to turn coal into synthetic fuel, with a chemical process that has been tweaked for decades and that was perhaps most notably employed by Nazi Germany once its path to oil was blocked in World War II.

And with the process yielding about two barrels per ton, Montana theoretically could produce 240 billion barrels -- or about 30 years' worth of the oil now consumed annually in the U.S.

Schweitzer concedes that the coal-to-fuel plan makes sense economically only if the worldwide average price of crude oil remains above about $35 a barrel. Oil is trading at about $69 per barrel now, but until a few years ago it traded at less than $20 per barrel, and some experts project it will fluctuate back down to those levels.

And because there are engineering issues to be worked out, Schweitzer admits, industry firms are not clamoring to build plants.

"Everybody wants to be the first one to build the second plant" is how he optimistically puts it.

Environmentalists also say the process is a long way from the Holy Grail of creating a fuel whose climate-warming carbon could be reliably stripped and even conceivably pumped back underground. Most coal-to-liquid plants create huge pollution problems, they point out.

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