Coal ports for Washington: The fight starts in Montana

Proposals to send coal to China from Longview or Bellingham depend on a supply dug from rich deposits in Wyoming and Montana. Montana's Democratic governor has become a big booster, but others there are very concerned.

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Shipping coal to China could bring big changes to Montana. (Click map to enlarge.)

Proposals to send coal to China from Longview or Bellingham depend on a supply dug from rich deposits in Wyoming and Montana. Montana's Democratic governor has become a big booster, but others there are very concerned.

Part 1 of a two-part series on the Montana aspects of plans for shipping coal to China through Washington state ports. Reprinted and adapted from the Missoula Independent with permission.

The Otter Creek Valley, in southeastern Montana, glows green in early July, dotted with sage and bright patches of yellow clover and wild mustard after a spring of heavy rains. Ranchland rises gently toward rugged hills and buttes. Otter Creek twists a narrow channel through the middle, reflecting clouds. Otter Creek Road follows the creek. Few pickups pass between the unincorporated community of Otter to the south and the one-gas-station town of Ashland to the north.

A month before and about 6,000 miles away, in Beijing, a city of 20 million, where enveloping smog obscures the surrounding mountains, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer spoke of this Montana valley — or, rather, what’s beneath it. The governor of the state with the greatest coal reserves keynoted a coal conference sponsored by Peabody Energy, the largest private coal company in the world, with massive operations in northeast Wyoming, just south of Otter. Schweitzer and coal companies such as Peabody see economic opportunity in exporting coal to China and other energy-hungry Asian markets. More than a billion tons of coal beneath the Otter Creek Valley could be shipped and burned there.

The Democratic governor addressed a crowd of researchers and coal company reps at the coal gasification conference at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel. “I talked a little bit about energy security in the U.S. and most of the countries that were represented there, and how we share a concern,” Schweitzer said recently during an interview at his office in Helena. “We’ve become so dependent on oil from just a few unstable regimes, and the sooner we get to a new energy source that’s cleaner, greener, more sustainable, it’s better for everybody. Coal can have a future if we have a solution to CO2” — that is, a way to burn coal and contain the greenhouse gas — “or it doesn’t have a future if we don’t.”

But Arch Coal, and every other coal company in the business of making money, isn’t waiting for a solution. Arch, the second-largest U.S. coal producer, has paid about $160 million to lease from the state of Montana and Great Northern Properties 1.4 billion tons of Otter Creek coal on about 18,000 acres. The company is now seeking regulatory approval for what would be the state’s largest coal mine.

Meanwhile, Arch is arranging a way to ship the coal to Asia. On July 1, Arch, Warren Buffet’s BNSF Railway, and billionaire Forrest E. Mars Jr. purchased the Tongue River Railroad Company, which holds a valuable federal permit to build a 121-mile rail link between Miles City and Decker, with a spur connecting to the Otter Creek tracts, at an estimated cost of $550 million. Earlier this year, Arch acquired a 38 percent stake in Millennium Bulk Terminals, which is attempting to build an export terminal in Longview on the Columbia River, the idea being that the coal from Otter Creek could travel by rail to Longview and from there be shipped to Asia. The company also announced a deal to ship coal to Asia through a Canadian port near Prince Rupert, British Columbia. “These options will help us to meet our strategic objective of expanding coal sales from the Powder River Basin and the Western Bituminous Region into the world’s largest and fastest-growing coal market,” reads Arch’s annual report. The Powder River Basin, spanning southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, supplies about 40 percent of the country’s coal.

For all his “clean coal” caveats, Schweitzer is on board. In January, he traveled to Longview to encourage the Cowlitz County Board of Commissioners to approve Arch’s export terminal. “We have 56 counties in the state of Montana, but the most important county to the people of Montana today is Cowlitz County,” Schweitzer reportedly said. In March 2010, Schweitzer tried to force local governments to sign a statement supporting development of Otter Creek coal by holding hostage federal stimulus funds — an ultimately unsuccessful, illegal and somewhat perplexing attempt to link federal funds with the things Montana coal could buy.

If Montana permits Otter Creek, the state stands to make a fortune. Schweitzer says royalties would amount to between $5 and $7 billion over 30 years, and as much as $300 million per year for the Montana Legislature to allot.

“We have coal,” he says. “It creates a lot of jobs. And if it’s not produced here, it’ll be produced someplace else. Those boilers in Taiwan or Korea, they’re either going to burn Indonesian, Australian, or Russian coal, or they’re going to burn coal [shipped] from the Pacific Northwest, maybe Montana. And I’d like to create jobs … not just mining it; it’s jobs reclaiming it, and it’s jobs shipping it. Those are all good jobs.”

And it’s not just Otter Creek. There are a handful of other proposed coal mines in central and eastern Montana. The state’s demonstrated coal reserves amount to about 119 billion tons, almost a quarter of the entire country’s. For a variety of reasons it hasn’t made economic sense to tap most of the trove. Asia’s coal demand, a new railroad, and the enticement of, in Schweitzer’s words, “a pretty good lump of money” may change that.

China can’t get enough. The world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal used about 3.2 billion tons of it in 2010, about three times U.S. consumption. It also has roughly 115 billion tons of proven reserves. In 2009, China imported 126 million tons of coal, a relatively small amount, but in doing so, the country became a net importer for the first time, a shift that Stanford University researchers Richard K. Morse and Gange He, in a 2010 paper, called “one of the most dramatic realignments” the global coal market has ever seen.

Where some in the U.S. and other nations see dependence on imported energy as a threat to national security, the opposite view is burgeoning in Asia, says Deborah Seligsohn, a Beijing-based senior fellow with the World Resources Institute. “There’s a growing view in China that imports of coal improve energy security rather than hurt energy security, because then you have more left at home. So if you need it, you have it.”

Coal fuels the world’s fastest growing major economy. Home to more than 1.3 billion people, China has seen a more than tenfold increase in GDP since 1978.

I was in China in June, 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 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.


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