It’s a dramatic title, but something needs to get the attention of complacent citizens or Montana will be right back with a squeezing snake around their throats. We’re still suffering for our willingness to let Montana Power go play with fiber-optics instead of tending to business. The infrastructure of commerce is dependent on sewer, water, oil, gas, electronic webs across the state. That’s not counting irrigation canals, highways, and satellites/cell towers. They resist regulation or taxation as hard as they can. For a long time the government let them cross reservations with impunity, paying no fees. Even now they demand the right to slice through your property whether you want it or not. They cross international boundaries easier than you or I going up to shop in Alberta. And “they,” being international corporations, only pretend to be human beings by passing a law that says they are, so they can disassemble and evaporate if one pursues them.
Profit is often achieved by shifting something of low cost and value (like wind) from one place into an element of high value (electricity) in another place. The problem is always getting it there. Thus those networks of pipes and wires, some of them short and some of them long. We’re finding that they degrade faster than we thought and in many cases no one made a map of where they are. (An exasperated governor just now ordered a map of the HUNDREDS of pipelines webbing the state with records or legal agreements over responsibility for maintenance.) We’re finding that when they cross nature’s watercourses and geological faults and animal migrations, we’ve got trouble. Two oil pipelines have broken open in recent weeks: one major and one minor, though the workers who had to clean up the latter did not consider the resentful rattlesnakes on the scene very minor.
One of the most dangerous aspects of all this is that low value wind on the rural landscape is in low population density places and the high value electricity (or water) need is in high population density places like cities. In a democracy a majority of votes rules what happens, leaving the rural population at a definite disadvantage. To the city eye scanning the country, there is nothing to disturb -- unless it’s a mountain range or a grizzly bear. They can’t see water tables or antelope trying get to their birthing grounds or a change in crop yield. They don’t think about rattlesnakes.
Another dangerous element is the middle man who controls the flow, negotiates the deals, and -- lately -- initiates the eminent domain and gets favorable legislation passed to suit company needs. The city people need to think about what they will do if the middle men get them on-line, dependent, and -- once they are hostages -- hike the prices or demand even more favorable laws and deals. This is one of the reasons for nationalizing or at least governmentally regulating basic utilities.
Pipes and wires are often hard to understand without a technical education. For instance: “Highways have on- and off-ramps, and so towns along the route can see some of the benefit. High-voltage direct-current transmission lines, while efficient for long distances, aren’t designed to drop off electricity along the way — they’re basically no-exit highways. It’s possible to add “off ramps,” but it’s very expensive. As a result, states may not be as willing to seize land for the project as they were for Eisenhower’s interstate.” Ask the by-passed small towns how their motels did after the big four-lane highways were built.
They tell me that some of the strange things that happen to Valier electricity is related to the huge wind farm just north of us. (Since the tie-line is not yet built, where IS all that electricity going now? I can see the hundreds of windmills turning.) People are just beginning to wonder what happens at the end of the lifespan of the turbines. What about maintenance? Obsolescence?
In Shelby, to the north, coming in on the highway one sees transmission lines marching out over the hills in every direction as well as the modal railroad/truck exchange where warehouse containers leave the tracks on 18-wheelers. (They’re big enough to live in, just as people used to do with boxcars.) The mayor there has been determined to make the town profitable any way possible, including hosting a private prison. One is ill-advised to pick up hitch-hikers. One can smell the sour-gas bubbles from wells or is it diesel from the engines?
All these lines and pipes are thick enough to begin interfering with each other. A company called Lightsquared proposes to build a web of internet support to address our lack of dependable high-speed broadband connection, but it will evidently interfere with the Global Positioning Systems in the big field tractors that shuttle chemicals and seeds onto the land in calibrated amounts as well as measuring the harvest results. These systems are what make profit possible in a business dependent on a very narrow margin with disappearing topsoil. Farmers also use bush planes over the long-horizon ranches and these are dependent on GPS. Mother Nature is a major player. As I type, sun flares are potentially interfering with ALL electronic systems on our planet.
Such tech problems can be worked out to some degree if the big international corporations can check their arrogance. Tonbridge, trying to build MATL, the tie-line meant to take our wind-power electricity out of this nation over into Canada, clearly expected to trample Metis Larry Salois underfoot. They thought, "What did he know?" Tonbridge should have read a little history. Metis are a diasphora nation, dispersed but not dissolved, and they know how to organize. (Canada hung the Metis leaders, but did not extinguish their culture.) The compensation for long distance country with thin population is passion and law. All of us, not just the Metis, value our private ownership. Though eminent domain is an honorable and sometimes necessary way to benefit the greater community, it is not designed to enrich merchants, especially when they are not from this country. Metis, half-Indian, know about predatory merchants not from here. You’d think the Irish execs of Tonbridge would remember their own oppressions. Tonbridge’s legislative catspaw is Welsh. You’d think he would also remember.
Understanding grows of the value of features Tonbridge didn’t care that they were obliterating: ancient traces of early cultures, wetlands that support so much small but crucial life, and even small oil drilling sites. These had legal protection in Tonbridge’s original contract. Tonbridge had enough control of the Montana legislature to pass a law exempting them from their own contract. But in the end the expense and indignation of litigation became a deterrent. They are now ready to sit down with Larry to negotiate. What Larry is trying to protect is not just his mother’s land -- it is the memory of history that teaches us what is valuable.