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Stillwater Mining Co. has been the catalyst for making Stillwater the fastest growing county in our region, providing some of the best-paying jobs in Montana. And the company is the only U.S. producer of platinum and palladium.

We aren't privy to all details of the Norilsk offer or a recently rejected proposal from U.S. investors. But we call for attention to serious national policy ramifications involved in the possible sale of Stillwater to a Russian firm.

If Norilsk owned Stillwater:

n None of the world's platinum and palladium production would be controlled by an American company.

n The Moscow-based firm would have cornered the market in these precious metals. It's estimated that the Russian company would then have at least 64 percent of the world's reserves. But the number is uncertain because Russian mining companies, unlike U.S. companies, aren't required to verify and publicly report their mineral reserves.

n It would be less expensive for Norilsk to reduce or even cease mining in Montana and sell its Russian metal production in the United States. The Russian company has denied that this would happen, but the company's offer to buy Stillwater includes more Russian palladium than what Stillwater produces in a year. Stillwater would have to sell that Russian palladium somewhere. Russian miners are paid less than their American counterparts, and Russian mining operations aren't subject to U.S. safety and environmental standards.

Access to U.S. market Stillwater has lucrative contracts with Detroit automakers because American industry needs a dependable source of quality platinum and palladium for catalytic converters. Norilsk failed to deliver on time some years ago. The value the automobile industry sees in dealing with Stillwater may be lost under foreign ownership.

Moreover, despite a glut in today's market, palladium and platinum may be the metals of future transportation. President Bush has thrown his support behind developing hydrogen-powered cars. One challenge of the new transportation technology is delivering hydrogen fuel to consumers. Palladium or platinum will be needed to stabilize the hydrogen in transit.

Montana possibility Earlier this month, people from all across Montana and as far away as Washington, D.C., gathered in Miles City to learn more about the potential Montana bid on the Bush administration's clean-coal technology project called FutureGen. Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns and Rep. Denny Rehberg were among the FutureGen workshop sponsors.

The vision for FutureGen is producing clean hydrogen fuel in a minimally polluting coal-fired generator.

Imagine this: FutureGen takes shape in Eastern Montana. The palladium needed to ship the hydrogen fuel throughout American is mined in the Beartooth foothills.

But what if Americans no longer own those metal mines? Norilsk would have a great, new profitable market. It would have no competition. The U.S. would be dependent on foreign production.

That would turn America's initiative toward energy independence back toward foreign dependence. Montana's congressional delegation must consider that scenario before backing the Norilsk buyout.