(Page 2 of 2)
“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 Intergovernmental 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.
“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. 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.”
“It seems to make a mockery of MEPA and our constitution,” says MEIC’s Anne Hedges of the Legislature's change. "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."
Tomorrow: A visit with a rancher concerned about the rail plans and a look at the prospects for shipping more coal through the Otter Creek area.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!