Billings residents rally for climate solutions

2014-04-26T14:59:00Z 2014-05-19T18:12:04Z Billings residents rally for climate solutionsBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Carrying signs reading “More wind, less hot air” and “Companies get the profits,” about 85 people attended a noon rally Saturday calling for solutions for climate change.

The Billings rally, held on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn, was one of 13 held across Montana on Saturday. Organizers said the Montana Rallies for Climate Solutions was put together in part to “address the many costs of coal.” The event was sponsored by Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council.

The Billings crowd included U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont.

Walsh, who’s a supporter of the Keystone XL Pipeline, said he attended “because I wanted to show my support for alternative energy. We know we need to work together to reduce our fossil fuel use, because it’s not a renewable resource.”

A grandfather for about a year, Walsh said he wants his granddaughter, Kennedy, to “inherit a Montana that’s as good or better than the one I inherited.”

Speakers were sometimes interrupted by drivers along North 27th Street honking their support. The Billings band Ellen and the Old School entertained both before and after the 40-minute rally.

Ben Reed, owner of Winpower West, a Billings company that helps people install renewable energy systems, told the crowd that solar energy will soon be a $1-trillion-per-year industry. Last year, 29 percent of all new electricity generated in the U.S. was from solar sources; nearly 143,000 American jobs are dependent on solar energy, he said.

“You want jobs? Let’s invest in renewable solutions,” he said. “Consumers are right to decide how their electricity is produced.”

Billings City Council member Becky Bird said that progressive change “will require an awful lot of cooperation from all the players,” including local officials.

“It’s our ethical responsibility as a (city) council to keep safety on the table and to look ahead, to be proactive rather than reactive” when it comes to, for example, ensuring the safety of trains passing through Billings.

Renee Seacor, president of the Rocky Mountain College Environmental Club, said she gave up studying equines at Rocky to focus instead on environmental science.

“I’d much rather be riding horses than thinking about this,” she said, referring to climate change. But acknowledging that her father in the crowd, she said that a lesson she learned as a five year old has stayed with her: “Just because you didn’t make the mess doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for cleaning it up.”

Dr. Robert Merchant, a pulmonologist at Billings Clinic, said up to 20 percent of the nation’s population suffers from asthma, “and air quality is particularly important to them. It can be a matter of life and death.”

“As a doctor, I prescribe medications” to help his patients breathe easier, he said. “As a community, we can do so much more. As a group we can come together to fight for clean air.”

Ellen Moak, the lead singer for Ellen and the Old School, said she too hopes the nation can find solutions to climate change. She said she spent some summers growing up on lookout towers with her parents, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service. “I learned to do without a lot, including TV and electricity,” she said.

Not everyone attending the rally supported the criticisms leveled at the coal industry. Mike Johnson, who’s with Local 400 of the operating engineers union, said he was there to support the jobs of 500 members of his union.

Count on Coal Montana issued a statement in advance of the rally, saying the groups that organized the statewide events have a “‘keep it in the ground’ agenda for our natural resources. The consequences of that agenda would be very destructive to our state by killing jobs, artificially driving up the price we pay for energy and taking a huge slice out of our tax base.”

Not necessarily, Reed told the crowd. Trained as an economist, Reed left academia 27 years ago to launch his company.

“If traditional suppliers and policymakers will look forward and embrace sustainability, we’ll all thrive,” he said. “We need to challenge traditional utilities, and keep challenging our policymakers, so that all of us can enjoy a robust economy and a clean environment.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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