Fight Against Coal Moves West: Five Activists Temporarily Halt Leasing of Montana Coal Tracts

Five activists with Northern Rockies Rising Tide (NRRT) shut down a meeting of the Montana State Land Board in Helena, MT last Thursday, temporarily halting the leasing of 572 million tons of state-owned coal reserves. Following over two hours of public comment regarding the leasing of the Otter Creek Coal Tracts and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s move to accept the bid, the five activists staged a sit-in, disrupting the meeting as they chanted “You’re not listening! Hands off Otter Creek!” Rushing the front of the Land Board meeting room and locked down to each, the activists refused to leave until the decision to accept the bid was tabled indefinitely (or they were arrested). After halting the bidding process for nearly an hour all five were finally arrested and taken to the Lewis and Clark County Jail with charges of disorderly conduct. All five posted bail and were released Thursday evening.Unfortunately, after the sit-in was broken up by the police the Land Board proceeded to award the lease to mine the Otter Creek coal tracts to Ark Land Company, a subsidiary of mining industry giant Arch Coal Inc., for just under $86 million, or 15 cents per ton of coal.

After spending months submitting public comments, writing letters to the editor, testifying in front of the Land Board, and taking all possible action within official channels, opponents of the lease (ranchers, high school students, environmental justice advocates, and other Montana citizens) realized what they had suspected all along: the supposedly democratic process for leasing state lands in Montana is far from democratic.

From every corner of the state Montanans have overwhelmingly vocalized their opposition to the lease (including high school walkouts and other public demonstrations), but three of the five members of the Land Board–Governor Schweitzer, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, and State Auditor Monica Lindeen–have refused to stand up to the pressures of “King Coal.” In particular, the NRRT activists complained that the impact of Otter Creek coal on climate change was not taken into account. In fact, at one of the Land Board hearings Gov. Schweitzer refused to allow activists to talk about climate change because he said that the issue of the Otter Creek Coal Tracts is not about coal burning but is strictly about coal mining. Unless he’s going to turn coal into freakin’ chocolate brownies it’s hard to see his logic there. What else do you do with coal but burn it (well, liquefy it, but that’s not Arch’s plan, nor is it a solution to the climate crisis)?

The Otter Creek coal tracts are located in southeastern Montana in the northern Powder River Basin. They are arranged in a “checkerboard” land ownership pattern whereby the state of Montana owns half of the tracts and Great Northern Properties owns the other rest. Great Northern Properties’ portion of the tracts were leased to Arch Coal in November. Overall the Otter Creek tracts contain about 1.3 billion tons of coal.

Otter Creek opponents also believe that the development of the Otter Creek tracts is sending Montana down a slippery slope of coal development that will lead to a windfall of strip mining operations in the region, replete with the usual environmental and social catastrophes. Currently, there is very little railroad infrastructure in the northern Powder River Basin. By leasing the Otter Creek tracts the Montana state government has guaranteed that the Tongue River Railroad will be built, which will open up the northern Powder River Basin to massive coal development. The northern Powder River Basin alone (not including Wyoming’s portion of the Powder River Basin) contains approximately 9% of the entire world’s coal reserves.

Leasing the Otter Creek coal tracts would not only devastate the communities through which the Tongue River Railroad would pass, but, as we all now know, we must immediately stop burning coal and other hydrocarbons if we are to avert a total global disaster. According to Nobel laureate and University of Montana professor Steve Running, “This is where the rubber meets the road,” in terms of climate change.

When the coal from the Otter Creek Tracts is burned in coal fired power plants it will release approximately 2.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The burning of this coal will most likely not be in the U.S. In November, when Arch Coal leased Great Northern Properties’ coal, they said as much: Faced with the possibility of national climate legislation and carbon caps, Arch, as always, is on the forefront of innovative corporate solutions–they’ll just ship their coal to Asian markets where they won’t have to worry about such progressive restraints on the free market.

The land that contains the Otter Creek coal reserves belongs to the Montana State School Trust. The state of Montana owns 6 million acres of such land and leases out this land for various ventures such as resource extraction projects, cattle grazing allotments, and even a few wind farms. The money from these projects funds the K-12 school system. The Otter Creek Coal mine will be the largest single project ever on School Trust Land and will ensure that Montana’s school system will be funded by dirty coal money for years to come. In February, outrage over the leasing of Otter Creek grew among high school students to the point that there were a series of high school walkouts in which Montana’s students stated loud and clear “no dirty coal money for textbooks and computers!” Check out the videos of the walkouts go here:

Ironically on the same day the Otter Creek Coal Tracts were leased, Federal District Judge Malloy in Missoula, MT suspended 38,000 acres of oil and gas leases on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in Montana as a result of a law suit brought by the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project and Wild Earth Guardians. The environmental groups sued the BLM on the grounds that the oil and gas drilling process releases too much methane into the air. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide and approximately 23% of all U.S. methane emissions are from oil and gas leasing projects. Another major source of methane is from coalbed methane, and is released during the process of coal mining. Given that most of the coal in the Powder River Basin is on public land owned by the federal government, as well as MT and WY state governments, it will be interesting to see in the coming years if this will also become a strategy to stop coal mines on public lands.

The fight to stop the Otter Creek coal mine is just beginning, and we’re not going to stop until we win. Hands off Otter Creek!

For lots more background on the Otter Creek coal tracts, Powder River Basin coal mining, and the growing movement against coal in the West please see http://www.northernrockiesrisingtide.org.

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