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HELENA — Coal and energy developers say Gov. Brian Schweitzer is getting ahead of himself in promoting a coal-to-liquid fuel plant or other "clean coal" projects in the state, and would do better to first focus on developing the Otter Creek coal tracts in southeastern Montana.

Billings businessmen Mike Gustafson and Pat Davison said the state would be better off with a more conventional power plant, rather than a clean coal plant whose technology is a long way from being used on a broad, commercial scale.

"Schweitzer is forgetting that you have to crawl, you have to walk, before you can run," said Gustafson, who has tried for years to build a railroad to serve prospective new coal mines in southeastern Montana.

But the bottom line, they say, is developing the Otter Creek tracts before developers take their work to Wyoming, where the federal government is preparing to lease up to 3 billion tons of coal.

"The common denominator in all of the projects is the coal; you have to have a coal mine," said Davison.

Gustafson and Davison said development of a more conventional power plant would provide an industrial base that would boost the economy, and attract research for the coal-to-liquids or low-emission power plants using a process that captures carbon dioxide emissions.

The state owns about 600 million tons of coal in the Otter Creek Valley, just east of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.

Schweitzer questions whether pursuing a large, coal-fired power plant that would sell much of its power to the West Coast is a better economic bet than the coal-to-liquids option or plants capturing carbon dioxide emissions.

Developing a coal-fired power plant still would take five to seven years, he said, and the logical buyer for at least some of the power — California — has said it won't import electricity unless it is generated by the cleanest methods possible.

Schweitzer said the kind of plant he advocates would take as long, or possibly longer, to develop, but would have better economic prospects in the long term. The coal-to-liquids plant would produce clean diesel fuel, for which there will be a huge continuing demand, and the other would put out the cleanest power produced by coal, he said.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Brad Johnson, a Republican, called Schweitzer's coal-to-fuel idea a "10-year-long, $10 billion pipe dream built on 70-year-old technology," and urged the state create a comprehensive plan, including timelines, for developing the coal reserves.

A "property resource evaluation" of the coal is due out next month, after which the state will look for direction from the state Land Board. Both Schweitzer and Johnson are members.

"In the next few months, we'll sit down and decide how to lease it," said Schweitzer, a Democrat. "I just want to make sure we get fair market value for it."

The Otter Creek coal tracts are interspersed with coal owned by Great Northern Properties. The company has been working with the state on possible lease plans.

Great Northern also is working on a proposed coal mine and power project west of Circle, which is 150 miles north of Otter Creek.

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