I confess I’m not quite sure what to make of Montana governor Brian Schweitzer’s grand scheme to make the U.S. energy independent with coal-to-fuel conversion. The NYT makes only passing reference to the pollution generated — "what is new is the technology that removes and stores the pollutants during and after the making of synthetic fuel" — and Schweitzer seems slightly too pat about the consequences of mining the coal:

Mr. Schweitzer said the mining could be done in a way that restored the land afterward. “I call it deep farming,” he said. “You take away the top eight inches of soil, remove the seam of coal, and then put the topsoil back in.”

Yes, because farming has been so kind to the Western prairie …

Naturally, my environmental spidey-sense tingles at this sort of stuff. Will the mining really be done carefully? Will restoration really be a priority? Are the pollutants really "removed and stored" safely? I know very little about the process, technically speaking, and would love to be enlightened by an educated reader. But methinks when it comes to energy extraction in the West, an enormous dose of skepticism is warranted.

Still.

We obviously can’t keep using oil for fuel, at least not exclusively. We all want clean energy, including Schweitzer — "He is also promoting wind energy and the use of biofuels, using oil from crops like soybeans as a blend. The governor signed a measure this year that requires Montana to get 10 percent of its energy from wind power by 2010, a goal he said would be reached within a few years." — but it’s clear that even under the most optimistic scenarios, we need some bridging technologies. We’ll have to make some compromises, and it looks like the green community is coming to terms with that fact:

One surprising thing, thus far, is that many people in the environmental community have not rejected the coal-to-fuel idea out of hand. Environmentalists like the process for producing clean fuels from coal. They say the technology is there and it can be done in coal-rich empty quarters of eastern Montana, North Dakota or Wyoming.

“It’s a very interesting moment in energy history,” said Ralph Cavanagh, an energy policy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s most powerful environmental groups. “Certainly this process can be done. This is a promising direction. The question is, Are we going to do it clean?”

Certainly Schweitzer is pitching this the right way, inveighing against "the best Congress that Big Oil can buy" and so on. However ambivalent I am about the positive program, it only benefits us all to have that critique getting more press.

So what do y’all think?