By Matthew Koehler, Ian M. Lange and John Snively
Last fall news broke that the University of Montana was planning to construct a $16 million wood-burning biomass plant on campus next to the Aber Hall dormitory. UM officials claimed the biomass plant would save UM $1 million annually and protect Missoula’s air quality by reducing emissions over the existing natural gas heating system.
As interested citizens, we attended the university’s biomass “poster presentation” last December, which, unfortunately, raised more serious questions than it answered. So we continued to ask questions and research the proposal. In March, we even conducted an “open records” search of UM’s biomass project file, pouring over hundreds of documents and emails between UM officials and representatives of Nexterra, a Canadian biomass boiler manufacturer, and McKinstry, a Seattle energy services company. Suffice to say, our records search turned up even more troubling questions, especially related to costs, maintenance and emissions.
As the Missoulian reported last month (April 20), information in UM’s air quality permit application to the Missoula City-County Health Department showed that “Contrary to previous claims by UM administrators, the university’s proposed biomass boiler will not reduce emissions to levels below that of natural gas. In fact, UM’s proposed state-of-the-art biomass gasification plant will produce nearly twice as much nitrogen dioxide as its existing natural gas boilers – and in some cases, will release three times as much particulate matter.” The emissions are higher than what McKinstry’s feasibility study predicted.
Our records search also turned up a document showing that the biomass plant would also increase emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds by 40 percent or more over the existing natural gas system.
Obviously, Missoula is prone to severe inversions and air stagnation, especially during winter, when the greatest load would be on the biomass system. We found a UM biomass grant application that stated, “The Missoula Valley’s constrained topography presents ideal research conditions for long term analysis of environmental impacts of efficient woody biomass boiler combustion.” Do we really want to risk Missoula’s air quality for the sake of research?
It’s also 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 in April 2010 the cost of the biomass plant was $10 million. By July, the cost went to $14 million. Now it sits at $16 million. UM’s financial pro forma also shows that during the first 20 years the biomass plant would need nearly $10 million for additional operation and maintenance expenses over the existing natural gas system.
The pro forma is also troubling in other aspects. It over-estimates the cost of natural gas, while under-estimating the cost of biomass fuel trucked to campus, especially given rising diesel costs. The pro forma also completely zeros out all natural gas expenses and maintenance costs, even though UM now admits that a natural gas boiler would be used during cold winter days to augment the biomass system, and also used from May to September, when the biomass system is too powerful to use.
Further complicating the picture, UM realized during the permitted process that its existing natural gas boilers are in violation of air pollution limits. The fix will cost around $500,000. And UM’s contract with McKinstry was amended recently, meaning that UM is already contractually committed to McKinstry for $532,000 just for project development.
It is our belief that all of these significant issues need to be fully analyzed and rechecked, not just by the biomass project’s supporters, but also by the Board of Regents, independent of McKinstry and UM. Guarantees of performance by McKinstry need to be carefully scrutinized, as other colleges have paid the price for poorly written contracts or poorly vetted companies.
At the end of the day, Montana taxpayers deserve to see accurate, updated financial information from UM concerning all aspects of the biomass plant, including the initial $16 million price tag and $10 million needed for additional operation and maintenance expenses. And Missoula’s citizens have a right to expect that the University of Montana would not risk Missoula’s fragile air quality by needlessly increasing emissions over present levels.
Matthew Koehler is executive director of the WildWest Institute; Ian M. Lange is a professor emeritus, Department of Geosciences at the University of Montana; and Dr. John Snively is a retired dentist. All three live in Missoula.
Here’s the U of M Biomass website.
Here’s an essay from High Country News called:
Privatization threatens an Arizona national forest
When I think of “privatization” I think of something a bit more far-reaching than concessionaires… but OK, it’s an attention grabbing headline. Here are my questions for discussion:
What do you think about the use of concessionaires in recreation?
If you were the Forest Supervisor what would you do?
If you were the Chief what would you do?
What do you think keeps the FS from getting enough recreation funds?
Why don’t recreation groups get together and lobby Congress for enough funds?
Hypothesis: too busy debating each other to unite?
Here’s a website I found that points out some of the benefits of concessionaires, especially in this economic environment.
Here are the presentations from the 2010 NFRA conference.
Privatization threatens an Arizona national forest
Essay – April 29, 2011 by Kitty Benzar
Once upon a time, the Western public lands — places like our national forests and parks — were supported with American tax dollars.
In return, we were welcome to use them. Undeveloped areas required no money to enter, and developed facilities were basic but affordable. Land managers were public servants whose mission was stewardship – or so it seemed.
As in a fairy tale, public lands have fallen under an evil spell. Now the most popular of them sport high-end facilities with prices set to whatever the market will bear. Now, land managers implement business plans while we, the citizen-owners, have been downgraded to mere “customers.” Nowadays, even simple access frequently requires payment of a fee.
The latest place to fall under the spell is the Payson Ranger District of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. The district is currently soliciting bids on the for-profit management of virtually all recreation there. The successful bidder will control more than 25 facilities located on your public land and constructed using your tax dollars. And the winning bidder won’t even be required to follow the same federal laws as the national forest would have to, if it continued doing its job.
The Forest Service defends recreation fees by claiming that the agency retains the money and uses it to directly benefit the very place you paid to visit. By leasing federally owned recreation facilities to private firms, the agency makes a mockery of that argument. Fees become just another tax, and concessionaires become private tax collectors.
In a prospectus issued in early March, the Payson District began soliciting companies to privatize six family campgrounds, four group sites, a horse campground, an interpretive site, 10 picnic areas and seven trailheads. The prospectus vastly expands the number of fee sites on the district and does so without public involvement or comment. It’s a clear attempt to evade federal legal requirements and prohibitions on where fees can be charged.
What’s more, the winning bidder will not be required to honor federally issued recreation passes. The concessionaire will be allowed to issue and sell a pass of its own creation and keep all revenues. Furthermore, the concessionaire will be allowed to charge fees that the national forest is prohibited from charging, including fees just to park your car and gain access to trails and the backcountry.
A law called the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act was supposed to set strict limits on the recreation fees the Forest Service can and cannot charge. But in a feat of hocus-pocus, the agency says it can simply set these limits aside when it surrenders lands to a concessionaire’s private control.
The Enhancement Act also requires that any proposed new fee sites must undergo a robust and transparent public process, with final review by a citizen advisory committee. Apparently, that’s become too much if a hassle for the agency, because it doesn’t always get the needed public support. Land managers on the Payson have chosen to hand over previously free recreation sites to a concessionaire and declare the process exempt from the law.
The Tonto National Forest is attempting to do all this at the Payson District’s picnic areas, trailheads and a prehistoric Native American village, even though four of the picnic sites were improved in 2010 with taxpayer dollars. We own these sites, and we just paid to fix them up. Isn’t it an outrage that the Forest Service intends to allow a private company to sell us access to our own investment?
The Tonto did not invent this policy, but it is among the worst offenders. There is an America the Beautiful Pass that costs $80 and allows entry into all national parks for a year. It also covers day-use fees at virtually all Forest Service-operated recreation sites. But it won’t get you into the Tonto. For that, you need to upgrade the interagency pass and pay an additional $15. That makes the Tonto the most expensive federal recreational land in the country. And soon, even your pricey new Tonto Pass won’t allow you access to most recreational opportunities on the Payson Ranger District. As for your lifetime Senior or Disabled Pass, both of them will be nearly worthless.
Across the national forest system, creeping privatization has overtaken recreation like the briars that defended Sleeping Beauty’s castle. We need more defenders of free access to our public lands, and you don’t even need to kiss any frogs to speak out; just email Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell at RecreationFees@fs.fed.us and tell him that federal law applies on all federal land. Otherwise, the concept of public lands is nothing but a fairy tale.
Kitty Benzar is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She runs the Western No-Fee Coalition in Durango, Colorado.