For generations, American Indians considered the arid rolling hills in the Powder River Basin sacred. From time to time, the ground would naturally catch fire, spewing smoke into the air.
The ground itself didn’t really catch fire, of course; rather, the coal locked up in it did. Today, that land is still sacred, though to a vastly different demographic.
The majority of the basin sits in Wyoming, but the northern extremity creeps into Montana, encapsulating the hugely productive Decker open-pit mine just inside our border. Wyoming produces the lion’s share of the country’s coal — a full 40 percent — with Montana lagging at a distant sixth place and 4 percent.
Last Tuesday, April 2, Dr. Steve Running spoke to a crowd of students, professors and community members at MSU’s Reynolds Recital Hall. Running, a Regents Professor at the University of Montana, shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with other members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore for their work addressing climate change.
Running’s lecture tackled a broad range of issues impeding a sustainable future for our state, but coal stood out as a particularly low-hanging fruit. The one point he hammered home was that “Humans won’t make it to the end of the century if this [warming trend] continues.”
Montana is already seeing the damaging effects of global climate disruption: earlier snowmelt; longer, more devastating fire seasons; pine beetle and other insect epidemics; dangerously low late-season stream flow — the list goes on.
These impacts cut to the heart of why so many of us love Montana: hiking through swathes of thick, green forest in the Bob Marshall, fly fishing the cold waters of the Madison, and enjoying delicious sandwiches made with ingredients from local farms.
Ripe for Retirement
Utility companies buy over 90 percent of the coal mined in the U.S. in order to produce electricity, and roughly one-third of all the greenhouse gasses emitted in the U.S. come from coal-fired power plants, making them the single largest source of those pollutants.
The Union of Concerned Scientists lists 353 coal-fired power plants — four of which are located in Montana — that are “ripe for retirement.” These plants are often operating well beyond their design life, producing less power than before and lacking important pollution controls.
Even from an economic perspective, these plants don’t make sense for Montana: It would be cheaper to replace a third of all coal plants in the country with wind turbines than to retrofit and continue running them. Newer, cleaner technology beats out these dinosaur-burning dinosaurs.
From an environmental perspective, closing these power plants also makes sense. Consider just one of many examples: In western states like Oregon, Washington and even traditionally conservative Idaho, state officials are looking to tighten water quality regulations so that citizens who consume large quantities of fish will be safe from toxic exposure levels of contaminants. The number one concern? Neurotoxic mercury deposited from coal-burning power plants.
Outsized Political Support
In Montana, however, these plants enjoy political support far exceeding the purported benefits they generate. As of 2011, coal taxes comprise a measly 1.0 percent of state revenues, and the industry itself accounts for a paltry 0.36 percent of payroll, i.e., jobs, in the state.
Yet, despite the meager reality of coal in our state, both Republicans and Democrats kowtow to the industry. For example, the Corette power plant in Billings became a flashpoint of the hotly contested 2012 Tester-Rehberg Senate race. Rehberg accused Tester of killing jobs by voting for 2011 federal air-quality regulations.
What Rehberg failed to mention, however, is that the 2011 rules, based on clean air regulations passed by Congress in 1990, had been delayed for over two decades. In 2008, a federal court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had illegally exempted power plants from those regulations. Even former Gov. Brian Schweitzer tirelessly promoted the myth of “clean” coal.
As politicians in Montana look at developing our natural resources, coal should not be a viable option. We must look to small-scale renewables, rather than large-scale fossil fuel-burning plants.
Current proposals to dramatically increase coal exports to the West Coast — and from there to China — could increase freight traffic through many Montana cities. With China’s insatiable appetite for energy, the coal would be quickly offloaded from the barges and burned in power plants.
In an ironic twist, the toxic pollutants released would make it back to the U.S. in the jet stream even before the barge returned home. An old statesman once asserted that a capitalist would sell you the rope with which to hang him. With coal, that line might cut a little too close to home.