The University of Montana said Friday it will suspend indefinitely plans to build a woody biomass heating plant on campus and publicly apologized for a top university administrator’s derogatory comment about critics of the project.
UM President Royce Engstrom cited financial viability, fuel supply, increased pollution and the deteriorating discourse surrounding the $16 million heating project as reasons for scrapping plans to build an industrial-sized biomass gasification system in the foreseeable future.
The announcement marked an end to the university’s yearlong effort to reduce its carbon footprint by switching from natural gas, a fossil fuel, to heat its buildings to woody biomass, a renewable resource. UM proposed trucking in 16,000 tons of fuel from local forests to burn in a state-of-the-art biomass gasification boiler slated for construction next to the existing heating plant.
It would have been the cleanest biomass boiler in the state, but would nonetheless have produced particulate pollution in a valley known for its wintertime air-quality problems. The university conducted an environmental assessment of the project and was working through the air-quality permitting process.
It was a bumpy road at times, with the university discovering during the process that its existing natural gas boilers may not meet ambient air quality regulations in some circumstances. Requests to the timber industry to supply woody biomass for the boiler went unanswered and, a couple of weeks ago, a comment made by UM Vice President of Finance and Administration Bob Duringer turned the discourse ugly.
Duringer referred to the actions of environmental organizations appealing UM’s air quality permit as “low-level eco-terrorism.”
In an earlier email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Duringer wrote, “We all need to remember that what we are constructing is a public relations story, not a scientific analysis. We need to be straight with the facts but tilt the story towards our perspective. Small words, short sentences, no jargon is what the general public will find appealing.”
Engstrom said he wanted to apologize on behalf of Duringer for “his language that inappropriately characterized those individuals who have been vocal in their opposition to the biomass proposal.”
He added: “This debate has deteriorated to the point where civil and respectful dialogue has become difficult.”
UM has invested $541,000 in the project, which Engstrom maintains was a good investment because the research was worthwhile. The money was paid largely to Mckinstry, an energy construction company, to look into the project’s feasibility.
In the end, it became harder for UM to justify switching to biomass as the price of natural gas continued to decline.
Added to that financial equation was the difficulty of securing a contact with a timber supplier to provide high-quality biomass at a reasonable cost.
“While reducing carbon emissions is the right thing to do, I cannot commit the university to do so under conditions of financial loss,” Engstrom said.
Much of the public outcry surrounding the project stemmed from the air emissions.
The proposed biomass boiler met all local and federal air-quality standards. However, the boiler would have increased some toxic emissions above levels currently produced by UM’s natural gas boilers. And with Missoula’s history of poor air quality, residents couldn’t resolve the fact that UM wanted to burn wood while residential homes over the years had to retire their woodstoves.
“Missoula has worked hard to improve its air quality, and while the facts do not support significant deterioration of air quality, the distinctive nature of Missoula’s airshed presents enough of an unknown to give many citizens cause to worry,” Engstrom said.
The project grew out of the UM’s written commitment to help slow or stop climate change by reducing its carbon footprint. That move was largely driven by students passionate about sustainability.
The biomass boiler was one way of working toward that goal, Engstrom said, but there are others and UM will continue to find ways to lead the charge in reducing climate change.
Patrick Rhea, 21, a biology major and member of UM Climate Action Now, was encouraged that UM listened to students and made strides toward attempting local energy production.
“It’s important for the university to research things like this,” he said. “If you don’t take these kinds of steps, there’s no way to find solutions.”
Several vocal opponents of the project attended Friday’s news conference and said they appreciated the university listening to their concerns.
Jan Hoem, of Kalispell, said many of the citizens who voiced opposition to the project support reducing climate change. But they were concerned about locating a wood-fired boiler in Missoula’s valley, given its propensity for wintertime air inversions.
The Missoula City-County Health Department will continue moving forward with the university’s air-quality permit unless UM withdraws its application. A decision on the permit is expected next week.
Regardless, health officials will ensure that UM’s natural gas boilers are compliant with ambient air-quality standards, said Jim Carlson, director of environmental health at the Missoula City-County Health Department.
As to whether UM will ever revisit the plan, Engstrom said he can’t say never, but it doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.