For small-town mayors, Senate race preferences may be blowin’ in the wind

Source: Jennifer Yachnin, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2012

Wind farm

This wind farm near Cut Bank, Mont., is one of several throughout the state. Photo by Jennifer Yachnin.

SHELBY, Mont. — Whichever way the wind blows, it’s probably passing through this town of 3,300 in north-central Montana.

At least that’s the picture Shelby Mayor Larry Bonderud paints as he rattles off facts and figures about wind energy development here, seemingly without pausing for breath during a recent interview in the office of his optometry practice.

“We made a conscious effort to recruit wind farms and felt that was the thing to do,” said Bonderud, the six-term mayor, during an interview this week. “Our goal is to have $1.5 billion in investment by the end of 2013. We’re over $1 billion in wind farms now.”

Those investments include a handful of wind farms in the area surrounding Shelby, which stakes its claim to fame as the “wind capital of the world.”

Among the facilities that dot U.S. Route 2, which runs across northern Montana, are the new Rim Rock Wind Farm, which opened last month, as well as Glacier Wind Farm I and II.

“Between the [U.S.-Canada] border and Great Falls, we envision a whole lot of wind farms,” Bonderud added, describing his vision for the area, which also includes becoming a hub for the assembly and distribution of wind turbine blades and towers. “As you can see, we’re pretty pro-wind.”

But even in a place like Shelby, where wind energy production is key to the town’s economic stability, it remains to be seen whether energy could trump general economic policy and concerns over the federal deficit when it comes time for voters to cast their ballots.

In a contentious battle for Montana’s Senate seat — Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) is looking to move up after six terms in the House, but he must knock out Sen. Jon Tester (D) to get there — energy policy has proved a flash point, with multiple squabbles over coal production and environmental regulations.

Despite those differences, both candidates have agreed on one item, the extension of the production tax credit, a key tax break for the wind industry that remains in limbo in Congress.

“You’ve got your conservative voters and your liberal voters. I don’t think that is influencing anyone,” Bonderud said of the candidates’ support for wind energy.

But that doesn’t mean other topics might not sway voters here, Bonderud said, listing issues that put Shelby at the heart of any energy debate: Toole County is home to an $80 million Department of Energy-funded study on carbon sequestration, and Shelby is the base for a crew of 60 Amtrak workers who would be vital to the movement of equipment for turbines, gas pipelines and even coal.

“There are all these spark issues. Which one tickles someone’s fancy is hard to say,” said Bonderud, who would not discuss how he plans to vote in November although he described himself as a conservative who has voted Democratic in the past.

“They are both good people, and I respect both of them enormously for their commitment to public service,” Bonderud said of the Senate candidates. “I vote for the candidate and not the party.”

Thirty minutes to the west in Cut Bank, Mont., which sits on the other side of the newest wind farm, Mayor Doug Embody likewise declined to disclose his political leanings or who he will support in the Senate contest, saying of the state’s three-man congressional delegation: “I think they’re all as fair as they can be to my little corner of the world.”

Embody, who like Bonderud holds a nonpartisan post, said he believes both Tester and Rehberg favor energy independence but is more concerned that forces outside Montana could try to halt the state from developing its renewable and fossil fuel sources.

“People back East want to put a fence around Montana and keep it the way it used to be,” Embody said, adding that the state, which has no sales tax and high property taxes, needs new revenue sources.

Embody praised the Rim Rock Wind Farm, even as he acknowledged some of the economic benefit from the projects is temporary. The wind farm created around 300 construction jobs and boosted spending in town, but added a handful of permanent positions.

“But it’s a small town, and something is better than nothing,” said Embody, who spoke in an interview at Cut Bank’s Central Park, a corner of Main Street and Central Avenue dotted with benches and picnic tables that is locally known as “Concrete Park.”

While Embody cited the efforts of Tester and Sen. Max Baucus (D) to push the wind farm, he pointed to Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) as a main proponent. The project faced a series of setbacks during its construction, including financing difficulties and delays in the Montana-Alberta Tie Line, a Montana to Alberta transmission line tied to the wind farm.

Cut Bank was once a thriving town of nearly 6,000, but Embody noted the population has dropped significantly since the oil and gas industry left town nearly three decades ago. However, the introduction of wind energy facilities has helped to regrow some of the city’s population.

“When we see these kinds of things, it’s a sign of progress,” he said.