Oil may have been king at this Montana Energy 2012 conference, but Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana in Missoula, focused on the state's coal future.
He unveiled a survey of the potential impacts of developing the Otter Creek coal tracks near Ashland, a study financed by the Montana Contractors Association.
The Otter Creek tracts could produce 20 million tons per year of coal, which could boost personal income in Montana by nearly $104 million per year, a 6 percent increase for Eastern Montana residents.
Demand in China will drive Otter Creek's fate, Barkey said, and strong coal demand just from China leads to "gee whiz numbers."
"The projected increase in coal from today to 2035 is twice what the U.S. currently produces," Barkey said. "Clearly, China is going to demand coal from somewhere."
During two years of construction, Otter Creek would provide 2,648 construction jobs and cost $600 million to $1 billion to build the Tongue River Railroad, the mine, buildings and power infrastructure.
However, port facilities at Vancouver, Wash., are full and another loading facility is needed to handle Montana coal, said economist Paul Polzin, the bureau's director emeritus.
"New ports are absolutely critical to shipping Powder River coal overseas," Polzin said.
"They are being proposed, but there is stiff opposition."