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Gazette Editorial

With a few strokes of a pen and the Department of Interior seal, the United States transferred ownership of federal mineral rights in 7,623 acres of southeastern Montana to the state.

Bureau of Land Management State Director Matt Millenbach signed the mineral rights patent on behalf of Interior Secretary Gayle Norton and presented it to Gov. Judy Martz Wednesday morning in Billings. The governor had reason to smile as she accepted the document. Nearly four years after the Otter Creek mineral rights were appropriated to Montana by federal law, Martz held in her hand, what she called: "the title to the most significant asset we've acquired since statehood."

Martz deserves credit for pushing the Interior Department to make good on the long-promised Otter Creek transfer.

The promise of Otter Creek is the potential for as many as 500 jobs in coal mining, transportation and energy generation. Dave Gibson, head of the economic opportunity office that Martz created, will lead the administration's effort to develop these newly-acquired mineral rights. Martz said the mineral rights will be developed in an "environmentally sensitive and community sensitive manner."

That's an important goal. Environmental and community concerns will vary among Montanans as plans are made for developing this area. Costs and benefits must be balanced. It won't be easy. Businesses identified in Wednesday's Gazette report as evaluating their interests in Otter Creek certainly have the wherewithal to develop these coal deposits. But development will be a complex process of many projects coming together.

Martz recalled the controversial State Land Board decision that settled a lawsuit by the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. With Martz dissenting, the majority of the land board voted for an agreement that requires some consultation with the tribe on development plans.

"I am as determined as much as ever to move forward," Martz said.

"Our tribe needs work," Joe Walks Along Sr., former Northern Cheyenne Tribal president, told Martz. "We look forward to working with you."

Indeed, if Otter Creek is to be our "greatest asset," Montanans must work together.Powerful pressures on PSC decision A public hearing on a proposed electricity supply for 290,000 Montana customers began Tuesday in Helena. But firms holding tentative contracts with NorthWestern Energy (formerly Montana Power Co.) have been working for months already on new energy generation. They're in construction, arranging financing and leases and preparing to order equipment. With businesses proceeding before the Public Service Commission rules, can the commission still reject the proposed contracts?

The contracts are confidential. A lawsuit seeking public access to the documents has yet to be decided by a state district judge.

Most of the contracts were negotiated without competitive bidding. And testimony in the public hearings revealed that MPC counted "political muscle" more important in choosing a contractor than actual experience in the wind energy business.

The power portfolio looks more and more like another deal the PSC can't refuse, regardless of its statutory authority, regardless of whether it's best for 290,000 Montana electrical customers. That isn't prudent.