To the State Land Board, Re: Otter Creek Coal Leasing

(jhwygirl) Public comment for the proposed leasing of the state’s Otter Creek coal closes soon. A public hearing, continued from last month, is next Monday. I question our state’s commitment to green energy. You don’t pull a billion tons of coal out of the ground to look at it. Coal is filthy. Someone’s burning it somewhere. Ironically, Otter Creek is an area identified as viable for wind energy. The Button Valley Bugle (who has been on a roll lately) reminds us that some dogs are best left sleeping.

Anne Millbrooke, of Bozeman, has done a lovely job at touching at the myriad of issues surrounding the decision on whether to lease the coal tracts. I thank Anne for sharing her letter to our State Land Board, which is comprised of Governor Schweitzer, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, Attorney General Steve Bullock, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, and State Auditor Monica Lindeen:

Dear Montana Land Board:

As the state’s website says, the Montana Land Board oversees more than five million acres of school trust lands in order to generate revenue for the trust — for schools in the state. But the task is not simply economic. Inherent in public education are responsibilities for the health and well being of the students and the future of the students. That is why the Land Board should carefully consider all decisions about coal lands.

The environmental damage and health consequences of mining and burning coal are enormous, and the projected 40-year life of the proposed Otter Creek mines means any contemporary decision to lease coal lands binds the future to a dirty-energy infrastructure.

Otter Creek is the decision at hand. There are options for revenue that do not required strip mining the land and polluting air, land, and water, and the associated negative impacts on the health and well-being of children. Coal is not clean, coal power is not clean, and coal mining is not clean: step by step, decision by decision, we should be going green.

Furthermore, Otter Creek is not about jobs, nor the economic health of Montana families. According to the coal companies’ own Montana Coal Council website, the five big strip mines and the new underground mine in the state employ a total of only 1008 people. The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation estimated in its June fact sheet that two proposed mines on Otter Creek lands would employ fewer than 500 people. Coal mining is highly mechanized. It is not labor intensive. The poorest counties in the poor state of West Virginia have coal mines: corporate coal takes the local resources to enrich distant stakeholders.

In the big picture, Otter Creek is not really even about revenue. The nearly $6 million coal revenue reported for 2008 is helpful, but it is a very small percent of the school funding in Montana. Coal mining is not funding our schools, and not mining will not financially break our schools.

By treaty and ethics, the State of Montana has responsibility for the young people of the indigenous tribes of Montana. A few jobs will not compensate for the negative impacts on Native Americans and their lands. Coal’s negative impacts on Native Americans are fact, as recorded in the documentary film “Power Paths” about the Navajo experience with coal.

Montana’s state lands are held in trust, for perpetuity, not for a limited revenue stream. There is a responsibility to protect the land in trust. Yet reclamation remains more promise than reality in lands already disturbed by coal mining, and much of the restoration done has not been to natural habitat.

The out-of-state corporation that holds an in-state railroad monopoly and the out-of-state coal corporation that wants Otter Creek coal could take the educational, economic, environmental viability and sustainability of coal development beyond state’s borders and perhaps beyond the state’s control and regulation.

There is even a question whether development would happen, or whether the coal corporation simply wants to acquire the rights as a immediate tax maneuver and for possible development someday in the future under the financial and regulatory terms of this depressed economy. According to the Trust Land Management Division’s 2008 Annual Report, there are currently 29 coal leases, but only four producing leases. I think the coal industry has plenty of reserves on hold without acquiring the leases to more state lands.

Coal need not be developed at Otter Creek, where the wind blows mightily; for example, the school trust lands could become fields of wind turbines. Now is the time to transition away from coal, not the the time to expand the dirty-energy infrastructure in Montana. Mining Otter Creek coal — with current technology — would not teach our children well about living in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner, and it would harm the health of school children near the mines as well as downstream and downwind of the mines and coal-fired plants burning the coal.

Building new dirty-energy infrastructure designed to operate for 40 years is not in Montana’s interest in terms of the health and education of school children, the sustainability of local economies, clean air and water, and respect for downstream and downwind neighbors of the mines and the coal-fired plants to be fueled by Montana coal.

Please understand that Otter Creek has potential beyond coal and that coal lands should not be leased lightly. High environmental standards for any coal operations in Montana are necessary. Regulation and enforcement are necessary. But coal development is not necessary.

Yes, coal is a reality in our existing energy structure. Any new coal mining to support the existing infrastructure during our transition to clean-energy technologies, and any coal burning, should require CO2 sequestration. Coal seams sequester CO2 naturally. Mining and burning coal releases the CO2. The cost of developing and using new sequestration techniques will be offset by savings in terms of the health and in terms of the environment. Any plant burning Montana coal should be sequestering CO2 — by terms of contract as required by the State of Montana.

It is time to move beyond our historical reliance upon coal. In a popular and accurate analogy, we live in a global coal mine. We have since the 19th century. Now the “canaries” are dying: frog, bee, and bat populations are plummeting around the world, and those deaths are but symptoms of the larger problem of polluting our planet, our state, our homes. It’s time to clean-up our act, step by step, decision by decision.

Montana’s students need a clean, healthy environment in which to live and learn. They need a sustainable economy in which some day to work. They need to grow and learn in a setting with sustainable energy more than they need royalties from another coal lease. Please remember this as you consider appropriate use of Otter Creek and other trust lands.


  1. Big Swede

    Someone’s gotta do it.

    >>The environmental damage and health consequences of mining and burning coal are enormous<>Furthermore, Otter Creek is not about jobs, nor the economic health of Montana families<>In the big picture, Otter Creek is not really even about revenue.<>A few jobs will not compensate for the negative impacts on Native Americans<>Now the “canaries” are dying: frog, bee, and bat populations are plummeting around the world<<

    Bee and Bat deaths. Maybe they're flying around windmills.

    • Big Swede

      I’ll repost this later, individually.

  2. Big Swede

    Ann’s letter is based on many falsehoods. The most blatant is the effects of this mine on the state and communities economy and the environment.

    Maybe Ann didn’t notice, but we do have many examples a stone’s throw away. Colstrip, MT comes to mind. In Colstrip not only do we mine, but we burn the stuff. Where’s the devastation? Where’s the two headed frogs? Where’s the hurt children? Seems to me if that argument held water Ann could have linked pictures, done interviews, shown damage.

    Someone needs to ask her what has a greater effect on children’s overall health a coal mine/railroad, or poverty?

    You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to figure that an employed parent/s family has healthier offsprings. Do I need to link?

    I’m sure the positive economic aspects of this mine have been greatly overlooked, so I’m going to restate them.

    Payroll: 500 jobs@100k=50B annual payroll.

    State Income Tax: 50B payroll=approx. 5B PER YEAR!!!!

    Royalities: 40M down, 1.5B over the mines life.

    Related Jobs: I’ll use what they’re saying about S-Stone. The loss of 417 jobs equal an overall loss of 1500 jobs.

    Environmental Impact: This coal is being shipped some where back east. MT’s coal is close to the surface easy to access, less effort to mine. Other eastern mines involve more destruction, less restrictions than a new MT mine. Otter Creek would not require “mountain topping”.

    And lastly, why is windmills always the answer?

    Do you really think we’re that stupid?

    • Why is windmills always the answer?

      I like windmills. Particularly where it is windy.

    • You cite Coalstrip as a fabulous example of coal mining and community enrichment without environmental degradation?

      Really?

      A community which had its water poisoned by the Coalstrip plant? Who had to hire their own private attorney to seek mitigation and compensation because the state and the feds didn’t step in to help?

      Then, good God, you fabricate 500 $100,000 jobs? When the entire coal industry in the state doesn’t employ 1000 people? (That’s from the state’s coal industry, btw.)

      Then, still, you go on: “What has a greater effect on children’s overall health a coal mine/railroad, or poverty?”

      Ummmm…ever driven around the neighborhoods in Butte American, BS? High on up the hill? Houses abandoned, open pits around the ‘hood. Where are those children? With mining, Big Swede- if you pay attention to history – seems you can get it all.

      You sir, can say what you want – but it certainly doesn’t make it true.

      • problembear

        You sir, can say what you want – but it certainly doesn’t make it true.

        ….or even remotely sane…..

        rabid boosterism fools no one. this state has been screwed by big mining interests since its inception. mining supporters always promise the moon….and usually that’s what they leave us after they jet off with their profits- moonscapes.

      • Big Swede

        You’re right G-girl, 443 estimated jobs@73K(via DNRC). I’ll redo the math for ya. Nothing yet on how many new railroad jobs (probably min. wage).

        443X73K=32.3B annual payroll.

        Here’s where your wrong. This is a COAL MINE. Not a power plant with holding ponds or a turn of the century copper mine.

        Oh, and the town’s spelled Colstrip. You have an excuse, you live 400+ miles away.

        Funny, 400+ hundred miles away and you still think you know what’s best for us.

      • Big Swede

        testing 1 2 3

        • Don’t know why that occurred, BS. Found ’em in spam.

      • Big Swede

        You’re right G-girl, 443 estimated jobs@72K(via DNRC). I’ll redo the math for ya. Nothing yet on how many new railroad jobs (probably min. wage).

        443X72K=31.8B annual payroll.

        Now here’s where your wrong. This is a COAL MINE. Not a power plant with holding ponds or a turn of the century copper mine.

        Oh, and the town’s spelled Colstrip. 400+ miles away excuses spelling, not however what’s in our communities best interest.

        • Coal is coal to me, Big Swede. I don’t really separate out the contamination that occurred there as not having anything to do with bringing the stuff out of the ground. It’s filthy. That’s what I’ve said.

          Now – what about the eminent domain – government takings proceedings – that will have to occur in the name of a private railroad?

          For me, I go at that two ways – on one hand, it’s frickin’ eminent domain action, guaranteed. How do conservatives champion that? Shouldn’t the free market dictate whether that coal is worth getting at? Pay the landowners their price. Free market.

          Secondly – those court proceedings are going to take years, if not decades. There are some pretty wealthy people involved. Why lease the coal now when they can’t get at it and once they are able to get at it the land will be more valuable. Shouldn’t the state wait to lease it until such time that they have access? Because Great Northern isn’t getting to its holdings (which are interspersed with the state’s stuff) without crossing state.

          Now – call me crazy, but if I were the state, I’d be telling Great Northern that if you want to get to your property, you got to get us to ours. In other words – if you are going to ask us to condemn across private in the name of public purposes, then the state is going to use that which it condemns, and we wnat you to grant us access across our land.

          Northern Pacific is doing nothing more than seeking industrial welfare from the state of Montana, at the expense of the funding of our children’s education and the private property rights of Montana’s ranchers and other private property owners.




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