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Daily Telegraph: The fast talking governor who has a plan to fuel the American dream

By Alec Russell in Billings
(Filed: 17/06/2006)

The governor of Montana reached into the pocket of his black jeans, pulled out a vial of liquid and banged it on the table in front of him with a winning smile. “Diesel,” he bellowed. “It smells nasty. It is nasty.”

Like one of the fairground hucksters who used to roam his giant western state, he paused, then lobbed a nugget of coal into the air, before pulling out another vial. “Now smell this. It doesn’t smell at all. It is the future.”

Inside the second vial was a synthetic fuel made from, of all things, coal. It looks like diesel. Indeed you can pour it into the fuel tank of a diesel car and drive away. Yet it just may be the magic potion that will help Americans to win independence from Middle Eastern oil and fill up their tanks with home-grown fuel.

Or so at least hopes Montana’s ebullient Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer.

With his “bolo” cowboy tie and his collie always at his side, the former rancher has been dubbed by one US network “half Renaissance man, half cowboy”.

He is in the vanguard of a new drive in the heartland to break what even President George W Bush, an old friend of the oil industry, has called America’s addiction to oil.

“When I graduated from university (in 1980) 48 per cent of our oil was imported,” said Mr Schweitzer. “Now we’re importing 60 per cent.”

While the world still thinks of America as a country of gas-guzzlers set on the dream suburban life with the 4×4 in the drive, there are signs of a change of heart – or at least of an awareness that the time has come to wean the nation off Middle Eastern oil.

With petrol prices soaring, this is no longer just a cause for trendy Democrats. Conrad Burns, a Republican senator in Montana fighting for re-election, said: “We’ve got to get more independence from fossil fuel and keep working on new technologies.”

There are two main paths for America to kick the oil habit – bio-fuels made from crops or synthetic fuel made from coal. With vast quantities of coal lying under Montana, Mr Schweitzer is backing the coal-to-diesel route.

The technology has a controversial history. The conversion process, known as Fischer-Tropsch, was first successfully used by the Nazis and then more recently by apartheid South Africa as both regimes tried to use science to make up for their lack of oil.

Mr Schweitzer brushes off the historical parallel saying science is neutral. He points to the vast plain stretching around the town of Billings, which hides one of America’s largest and least tapped coal fields. “We have enough coal to supply all of our energy needs for 200 years,” he said.

The Greens are outraged at the idea of digging up the Montanan plain. “The environmental community go ballistic,” said Mr Schweitzer. “They say ‘What are you talking about? We thought you were a green, that you understood how bad the last 100 years have been.’ ”

He insists, however, that the days of coal-powered smoke-stacks are over and that the carbon dioxide produced by the process would be pumped back into the earth. He also points out that even if you turned all of America’s wheat and corn exports into bio-fuel you would come up with only about 15 per cent of the nation’s diesel needs.

China is collaborating with Shell on Fischer-Tropsch projects in Asia. Now the hunt is on for about £800 million of US investment.

Bud Clinch, the head of Montana’s coal council, concedes that potential investors are wary. But he adds that the recent rise in fuel prices to more than $3 a gallon (42p a litre, or less than half the British price) has redoubled interest in alternative fuels.

“For the average American it’s a shock. Whether coal or drilling oil wells, I am not sure if people care one way or another. What they want is getting more change back when they fill up.”

America has heard calls for self-reliance before, notably under President Jimmy Carter, and then the price of oil has gone down and everyone has returned to their old ways. Mr Schweitzer concedes the project makes little sense if oil goes below $30 a barrel from its current rate of nearly $70 but “the risk is very low”.

“When Kennedy said we could go to the moon and do it in 10 years, people thought he was crazy. They underestimated the creative spirit in this country.”

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