Orient Express

Will Montana become a coal colony?



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I was in China last month, as part of an environmental exchange program through the University of Montana's Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center. During my travels in Guizhou Province, in southwestern China, where there are about 1,000 coal mines, I headed out on a seven-hour drive that was shortened to four because a new highway had opened the day before. In Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, the government has spent billions to construct a new city to the northwest, partly intended to house city government. A cluster of more than a dozen nearly identical skyscrapers at the same stage of construction rises from otherwise rural ground.

The incredible pace of China's growth, and the energy it demands, underscores the relative insignificance of one or a few Montana coal mines feeding China's power plants. Montana currently produces about 44 million tons of coal per year (Wyoming's production is about 10 times that), and Otter Creek would produce about 30 million tons annually.

"We're not even a drop in the barrel," says Schweitzer.

But the development of Otter Creek could matter in terms of climate change, says Steve Running, a University of Montana professor of forest ecology and member of the Intergovern-mental Panel on Climate Change. Running calculates the combustion of Otter Creek coal would result in about 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the life of the mine. That's 50 times Montana's annual emissions.

The path of the proposed Tongue River Railroad. Billionaire Forrest E. Mars acquired a third of the railroad to prevent the roughly 50-mile section south of O’Dell Creek Road, near where he owns property, from being built. - MAP BY JONATHAN MARQUIS
  • Map by Jonathan Marquis
  • The path of the proposed Tongue River Railroad. Billionaire Forrest E. Mars acquired a third of the railroad to prevent the roughly 50-mile section south of O’Dell Creek Road, near where he owns property, from being built.

"I know we're doomed to using coal for the next number of years," Running says. "You hope it's no more than five or 10 years. But for God sakes, we shouldn't be writing new leases like they are at Otter Creek. I mean, that is, to me, obligating coal use far, far into the future in exactly the way we should not be doing."

The mine's estimated life is 40 years. "We better the hell be off of coal in 40 years or it's game over," Running says. "It really is."

Running says atmospheric CO2 has reached 394 parts per million. He says he doesn't know what number represents a tipping point, beyond which feedback loops—like polar ice caps melting into water that absorbs more heat, thereby melting more ice caps—make it impossible to reverse the trend. "The reality is, it's not impossible that we've passed a tipping point already, or we may be a good ways away." In any case, he says that of the ways people can generate power, "coal is the dirtiest, least efficient way to do it of anything ever devised."

"Every way you slice and dice the issue, coal loses," Running adds—"except for cheap. The only thing it has going for it is cheap. And it's cheap because of this artifact, that we're letting (people) use the atmosphere as a free garbage can."

Climate change also happens to be at the center of a legal challenge to the state's decision, in March 2010, to lease Otter Creek coal tracts to Arch. Two months later, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club filed suit alleging that the Montana Land Board, made up of the state's top five elected officials (currently all Democrats), failed to consider the mine's potential effect on climate change when it approved the lease by a vote of 3-2. In January, Montana District Judge Joe Hegel rejected an attempt by the state and Arch to dismiss the case, and questioned whether the lease should have been awarded prior to an environmental review under the Montana Environmental Policy Act.

The case was complicated earlier this year when the Montana Legislature amended MEPA to limit consideration of an action's impacts to within Montana's borders. That narrows the extent to which the state can consider Otter Creek's impact on global climate change. If MEIC and the Sierra Club prevail in the case, forcing the state to cancel the Otter Creek lease and go through the MEPA process, it's unclear which version of MEPA would apply. What could also be at issue is whether the new MEPA complies with Montanans' constitutional right to a "clean and healthful environment."

Gov. Brian Schweitzer addresses a coal gasification conference in Beijing on June 8.
  • Gov. Brian Schweitzer addresses a coal gasification conference in Beijing on June 8.

"I don't know how you implement the right to a clean and healthy environment if you exclude consideration of the greatest impact we've ever known," says MEIC's Anne Hedges. "It seems to make a mockery of MEPA and our constitution. That is going to be an issue that's surely going to be before the courts, and it is going to be before the courts, my guess is, on this case."

Hegel has scheduled oral arguments on the summary judgment motion for Sept. 27, in Broadus. A decision will likely not come for months.

Hedge's objections to shipping Montana coal to Asia extend far beyond exacerbating climate change. She points to the irony in those ships returning to the U.S. stocked with renewable energy technologies. China leads the world in the manufacturing of solar panels and wind turbines.

"We get the pollution," she says. "They get our cheap coal products. We get the water pollution. We get the permanent scars on our landscape. We get the ruining of a lot of our ag heritage, and for what? To sell them cheap coal...What's fair about that trade?" The only ones making money off it, she says, are the coal companies. "The rest of us are being sacrificed."

'It's kind of ridiculous.'

At dusk, south of Miles City, Mark Fix and I ride around his ranch on his red side-by-side four-wheeler, kicking up an occasional northern flicker or pheasant from the high grass. We keep our hands over our mouths while talking to keep any more gnats from entering. His feisty Pomeranian, its torso shaved for the summer, runs behind, trying to keep up. The north-flowing Tongue River, with cottonwoods along its banks, winds through his 9,700-acre property. The soft-spoken Fix keeps a couple hundred head of cattle here, and grows, this year, alfalfa and barley.

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