Montana's Coal Cowboy

<b>Lesley Stahl</b> Reports On An Ambitious Fuel Plan

America's dependence on foreign oil - President Bush called it "an addiction" in his State of the Union address - has become a threat to the country's economy and security.

While the president spent much of last week promoting energy alternatives of the future, like hybrid cars and fuels made from wood chips, the governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, says there's something we can have up and running in the next five years.

What he has in mind is using the coal, billions of tons of it, under the high plains of his home state. The governor tells correspondent Lesley Stahl he wants to use an existing process to turn that coal into a synthetic liquid fuel, or synfuel.

The plan is controversial, but Gov. Schweitzer - half Renaissance man, half rodeo cowboy - seems ready for the challenge. In fact, he sounds like he's ready to take on the world.

"Why wouldn't we create an economic engine that will take us into the next century, and let those sheiks and dictators and rats and crooks from all over the world boil in their own oil?" Schweitzer said at a press conference.

Schweitzer has called them rats and crooks and hasn't held back on bit. "Hugo Chavez, the Saudi royal family, the leaders of Iran," he said. "How about the countries that end with 'stan'? Nigeria? You tell me. Sheiks, rats, crooks, dictators, sure."

He's a governor with his own foreign policy and no one is calling Brian Schweitzer a wuss. He says flat out that his plan will change the world, and that the key to the country's energy future is buried in the grassy plains of eastern Montana.

"Probably about half of eastern Montana has coal underneath it," Schweitzer explains.

Montana is already mining a small fraction of its coal.

But unlike the deep shaft mining done in West Virginia, Montana coal is surface mined and there hasn't been a fatal accident in 15 years. The governor took 60 Minutes down into one of those huge pits.

"We are surrounded by energy," Schweitzer said. "There's no going down into a mine. It's a road. They drive right out of here."

"But, let me ask you something. Coal has such a bad reputation" Stahl said. "It's dirty. I can feel it. I'm gonna be filthy. I can smell it. It's awful, awful, awful. How many of these would you have to dig out to produce enough of what you're talking about to make it make sense?"

"If we got to 20 of these kinds of pits, we could produce a serious amount of energy for the future of this country," the governor said.

It's not enough to completely break our addiction to foreign oil, but a start. Most coal today is used for electricity but the governor's plan is to turn Montana's billions of tons of untapped coal into a liquid diesel fuel for our cars.

Schweitzer wants to take coal that's been pressurized into a gas, and then use something called the Fischer-Tropsch process to convert that gas into a clean diesel fuel, similar to what is made at a demonstration plant in Oklahoma.

The governor handed Stahl a jar of this synthetic fuel, which looked and smelled clean. "Chanel No. 37," Schweitzer said, laughing. "It is diesel. You can pour that in your diesel car or truck right now."