A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

25 January 2017

Counting crowds, and Bullock v. Knudsen on words and coal

The Seattle Times explains how to estimate crowd size using grade school arithmetic. Yesterday, ruffled some feathers when, referring to Nate Silver’s work, I said I was discounting the organizers’ estimate of the turnout for the women’s march in Helena by 40 percent. Was I accusing the organizers of lying? No. I was observing that the organizers of rallies and marches often let their enthusiasm get the better of their judgment, leading them to claim crowd sizes not supported by independent analysis. That Trump loses credibility by lying about size should caution his critics' not to inflate their own numbers about size.

That independent analysis could come from the news media. It could also come from universities and colleges; in Montana, from the University of Montana and Montana State University. I suggest that the political science, journalism, and GIS, departments collaborate, teaching students the science and art of counting crowds, and send teams of students to count the crowds at events such as parades and rallies.

I’m sure the regents and the administrators of the universities would welcome the opportunity to endorse, with foot-stompin’ excitement, the educational and public policy benefits of providing solid estimates of crowd size, especially of controversial political events. There’s more to university math than Second Down and 20.

Gov. Bullock’s State of the State speech was longer and simpler than Speaker Knudsen’s response to it. Bullock’s speech as more dignified, too. Here are the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease scores and other metrics:


Bullock’s tone matched the solemnity of the occasion. He was gracious, calling on everyone to be governed by their better angels, not by their grudges. Knudsen’s speech was truculent. In his second paragraph, he denigrated the governor, setting a low tone that rendered his response a partisan screed bereft of the statesmanship the occasion required. Is Knudsen really that personally at odds with Bullock, or does the Speaker of the House just need a better speech writer?

Speaker Knudsen and old King Coal

Knudsen announced he’ll introduce legislation to keep the carbon burning at Colstrip Units 1 and 2:

Tonight, I am thrilled to announce that I will be personally introducing and carrying a bill that will help keep Colstrip Units 1 and 2 open. We will be releasing more information on this legislation in the upcoming days, but I can tell you that I could not be prouder as an eastern Montanan to carry this important legislation.

How Knudsen plans to subordinate a federal court to the Montana Legislature may be a highly entertaining attempt to nullify the federal government, perhaps not as noisy as blasting cannonballs at Fort Sumter, but worth watching all the same.

Maybe he just wants Montana’s taxpayers to subsidize a couple of old coal burners whose time has passed.

Or perhaps he believes President Trump will wave a magic wand that increases the price of natural gas while rescuing coal fired generating plants from federal regulations that protect Americans, including Montanans downwind of Colstrip, from coal smoke and carbon dioxide.

Although voters in coal county may rejoice at Knudsen’s announcement, reality is going to rain on their celebration. Units 1 and 2, old and losing money, are shutting down under a federal district court’s consent decree announced on 12 July 2016. The next day, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis reported:

Not until this past winter did officials at Puget Sound Energy, which are partners in Colstrip with Talen, concede that Talen was “hemorrhaging” money at Colstrip and might be looking to get out.

The cat was fully out of the bag this past May, when Talen CEO Paul Farr acknowledged that the company would “lose millions in terms of operating Colstrip” just this year. Farr noted that the market price of power had fallen below the profit margins of the coal-fired plant, largely because of low natural gas prices.

More recently, the company acknowledged that continued operations of Units 1 and 2 simply was not economically viable for independent power producers like Talan and that there wasn’t anything to suggest conditions would change. The company wanted out. Now the exit door has been thrown open.

There’s really only one way to make Colstrip Units 1 and 2 economical again: increase the price of natural gas to levels no one can afford. Save Colstrip Units 1 and 2 by reregulating the energy marketplace to discriminate against natural gas. Shut down drilling for oil and gas. No new pipelines. Levy a heavy carbon tax and an even heavier energy content tax on methane.

Have at it, Speaker Knudsen. Jigger the marketplace to free coal and kill gas. That would work, and have the added benefit of reducing the need for new infrastructure projects in northeastern Montana.