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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 July 2006, 18:56 GMT 19:56 UK
Montana's answer to US fuel problem
By Matt Frei
BBC Washington correspondent

Wheat field, Montana
Does the technology of the future lie below the mountains?

The US, keen to reduce its dependency on Middle Eastern oil, is beginning to wonder if the answer to its energy problems lies within its own borders. In Montana, a state which contains 11% of the world's coal reserves, the governor is proposing to turn that stock into diesel fuel.

Montana is a beguiling place. It looks as if the foothills of the Alps have been super-sized and then placed under a vast blue sky. The air tastes like champagne, the light is crystal clear and at this time of year the sweeping fields are covered in a yellow flush of wild mustard blossom.

The emptiness is populated by bison, buffalo and horses that seem to roam wild and look upon their human guests with gentle curiosity. And this bewitching landscape produces some of the most charming free range souls you'll ever meet.

Such as the state governor: a round-faced, ruddy-cheeked farmer named Brian Schweitzer, who darts around his vast fiefdom leaving a trail of exhausted minders and advisers in his wake.

Campaign prop

The only creature that can keep up with Brian is his dog Jag, a genetic canine cocktail with one blue and one yellow eye. Jag sits like an obedient piece of hand luggage under the governor's seat on the gubernatorial executive jet.

Brian Schweitzer (left) with the BBC's Matt Frei
Brian Schweitzer (left) with the BBC's Matt Frei
He even gets to put his paw print on state legislation at ceremonies in the Capitol, including a recent law that forbade drinking in Montana while driving.

But above all Jag is a campaign prop. At a Democratic Party fundraiser in a luxurious ranch overlooking a place aptly called Paradise Valley, he was summoned with a whistle, gave the governor a one-pawed high-five prompting the remark: "I wish y'all were as well behaved as my dog!"

The assembled crowd of Hollywood executives and retired Wall Street tycoons almost choked on their ribs before roaring with laughter.

Brian then asked his audience to give lavishly. "I know y'all can afford it and your kids won't mind going without food for a day or two!"

Political correctness isn't his big thing. And yet Brian has an approval rating amongst rich and poor that would make Arnie Schwarzenegger blush like a rose.

Fuel scheme

His plans for alternative energy, one of his lasting obsessions, explain why. Turning coal into diesel fuel is an old idea. The Nazis used it during World War II when they no longer had access to the Romanian oil fields and South Africa tried it when international sanctions were imposed on its apartheid regime.

Some environmentalists believe that the plan will scar America's most beautiful landscape with too many open cast mines

Brian is determined to wean the US off its addiction to Middle East oil.

"Why should we fork out $70 for a barrel of oil, produced by regimes that hate our guts?"

As long as the price doesn't slip below $30 a barrel, the governor believes his coal-to-fuel scheme will save money, make America less energy dependent and, crucially, provide thousands of new jobs in a state that needs them.

Not everyone is convinced. Some environmentalists believe that the plan will scar America's most beautiful landscape with too many open cast mines and pump too much carbon dioxide into the ground, creating a kind of massive subterranean bomb.

Another of the governor's experiments concerns wind power.

Like a travelling circus the governor, his dog and Eric - the bedraggled right hand man - flew us to a place called Judith Gap.

Here in a sweeping valley framed by the Crazy Mountains, 90 giant wind turbines revolved lazily in the robust Montana wind, providing the state with all the electricity it needs - with plenty left over.

'Win/win situation'

As Brian enthused about wind power and Jag chased a rabbit, two men appeared in straw hats and coarse wool trousers, held up by suspenders.

That is what they call braces here. Their red-cheeked faces were set in semi-circles of threadbare beards. I thought they were scarecrows. They turned out to be friends of Brian's.

Peter and David were members of the Hutterite community, an Amish-style colony of German migrants from Moravia, who shun the modern world and try to live strictly according to the Bible: no TV, no radio, no internet and an average of eight children per family.

The only nod to modern civilisation is a single subscription to the local paper. The only other text they read is the Scriptures - in German. They speak in the kind of German dialect that my great, great, great-grandmother would have understood.

"God gives us the energy," said Peter in broken English. "And the energy company pays us to put their turbines on our land. It's a win/win situation," he added, sounding disconcertingly like someone with an MBA.

As we left the wind farm I noticed a fenced-off area next to the road, that couldn't have been bigger than a tennis court. "What's that?" I asked Peter.

"Oh, he said laconically, that is a launch silo for one of our Minutemen ICBMs. "There are 200 of them dotted around here!"

An intercontinental nuclear missile, the tool of Armageddon, parked in a corn field between the technology of the future and the lost paradise of a pure past. Who said America was predictable?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 1 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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