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Uprising in Montana: Activists Take a Stand Against Coal Exports

Five days of civil disobedience took place in Montana to protest the coal industry’s latest scheme to save itself from obsolescence.

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More importantly, the Coal Export Action turned a spark of grassroots climate activism in the Northwest into a blaze. “We are here to demonstrate mass citizen opposition to big coal corporations’ dirty plan to export millions of tons of Powder River basin coal each year to the international energy market,” said Lowell Chandler, a construction worker and volunteer with the Blue Skies Campaign. “We’re here to pressure the state Land Board to stand with us against these massive coal export proposals.”

Every day the Coal Export Action transformed the Montana statehouse into participatory space where people from around the country held teach-ins and strategized the next steps for coal export campaigns in the West. A No Coal Exports grassroots coalition is coming out of Helena fired up and ready to fight.

The Coal Industry is Dying

In the middle of the week, Arch Coal issued a press release stating that they’d officially applied for the permit to strip mine Otter Creek. Otter Creek is a tract of land in southeast Montana sitting between two national forests and on top of over a billion tons of coal. The permit spreads over 7,639 acres of state, federal and private land. Arch paid the state of Montana $86 million for the coal and will also build new rail lines to get the coal transported out.

It became obvious the tension we’d hoped to create was working. The day after Arch’s announcement, we picketed the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality’s offices and began a dialogue with the agency’s amiable director, Richard Opper. He was obviously sympathetic but also said he had to abide by state laws and regulations.

The coal industry is dying. Coal has peaked in Appalachia. Environmental regulation, litigation, community-led campaigns, and the price of natural gas have all drastically reduced the amount of electricity generated by coal nationally, from 50% to 35%. The shrinking demand has led to large layoffs and fading quarterly profits for the biggest coal companies.

Now the coal industry is moving into an endgame scenario and coal exports are its last hope.  Coal reserves in the Powder River Basin area of Montana and Wyoming are still abundant and the industry is hoping to export coal through proposed mega-ports on the Oregon and Washington coast to international energy markets in China and India.

At the end of the Coal Export Action, I traveled to Missoula to unwind for a few days. On one of those days I took a six-mile hike into the Bitterroot Wilderness. Sharing a name with Montana’s state flower, the Bitteroot is populated with majestic trees, diverse wildlife and flowing waterways. Along the trails I encountered fellow hikers, fisherman, and horse packers. It was an opportunity to reconnect, if only for a moment, with the forests and mountains I’d spent a night in jail to preserve.

In the late 1990’s and the early part of the last decade, Wild Rockies Earth First! fought fierce campaigns in the Bitterroot against timber sales initiated by the forest service and logging companies. Many of these activists spent weeks and months in Montana jails for using escalated tactics like blockades and tree-sits to protect thousands of acres of Montana forests. As the anti-coal and climate movements resist fossil fuels with harder and harder campaigns and actions, it’s best to remember that the more we escalate, the more we will sacrifice.

 

 

Scott Parkin is an organizer with Rainforest Action Network and Rising Tide North America.

 
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