“Burning Montana’s coal increases our carbon footprint and accelerates global warming. Coal’s just about as dirty as it gets, and in the West, Montana’s is among the dirtiest.”
– Rick Bass, Colstrip, Montana and the Tragedy of an American Coal Plant
EDITOR’S NOTE: Colstrip, Montana, is an unremarkable town of about 2,300 with two dozen public parks and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It is above all a company town. It was founded in 1924 when the Northern Pacific Railroad began mining coal to fuel steam locomotives. It’s part of a sprawling Powder River Basin coal reserve that dips south into Wyoming. Reaching 700 feet into the air, the Colstrip power plant is the tallest man-made structure in the state of Montana. The four-unit plant and the open pit strip coal mines that fuel it sprawl over 50 square miles. When all units are finally decommissioned — whenever that may be — there will likely be a mass exodus from the town. Already, home values have plummeted. Colstrip is living under a hammer, and residents know it. — GT
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Let’s be clear: Barack Obama did not kill the coal industry. And Donald Trump did not save it.
The measures Trump took last week to greatly lessen regulations on the coal industry do not guarantee coal jobs will be around tomorrow, and they’re not going to bring back an industry that’s been in decline since the 1920s. Labor reports show there are as many florists today as there are coal workers.
Analysts point out that coal is concentrated in only a few states — in the West, that’s Montana and Wyoming. When coal goes, the towns go, places like Colstrip in Rosebud County. We feel for these workers and their families. Their plight is a gut-wrenching, tear-at-the-heartstrings dilemma. But ironically, most coal workers already know what Trump is selling is a sham. Listen to Robert Murray, owner of the biggest coal mine in the United States: “I suggested (Trump) temper his expectations. Those are my exact words. He cannot bring (jobs) back.”
Consumers want clean energy, clean air and clean water.
Consumers want cheap energy, the least expensive and most sustainable possible.
And coal jobs are being replaced by automation just as surely as robots build cars in Detroit.
The Yale Program on Climate Change did a study last year and found that 70 percent of Americans want to regulate coal emissions — even if it raises their utility rates. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) will swear Montana can’t live without coal (he’s wrong), but even in Montana residents favor cutting emissions from home-state generators. Ironically, the Colstrip plants send power to the West Coast. Even though the plants are “not in my back yard,” the utilities that own the plants are under political pressure to abandon “coal by wire.”
Coal has had a troubled history. Men worked and died in horrible conditions, scratching coal from the earth. They knocked the tops off mountains, turned streams into black slag and left great scars on the ground. Manufacturers needed coal to run the machines of industrial progress, to fuel the smoking iron-wheeled locomotives that transported people and goods across the continent.
In modern history, things got a little better for the miners. Fewer hours, better ventilation, mine safety. Following double-digit fatalities at the Sago and Upper Big Branch mines in West Virginia, the Obama Administration instituted rules for such things as emergency shelters and communications devices. For a while coal miner wages were better, but there were fewer jobs.
We’re left with a legacy of pollution. The Colstrip generators are among the dirtiest in the nation. Overall, coal generators are the top source of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury, leading to smog and acid rain.
There’s hope. In some areas, plants that ran on coal have been converted to natural gas. Wind power and solar energy are growing by leaps and bounds. Coking or metallurgical coal for making steel is still a contender. Retraining programs are taking root.
It costs less to mine coal in the Powder River Basin, so Montana and Wyoming may have a short-term advantage over Appalachia following Trump’s action. A cheap political play, it merely delays the inevitable. The United States can’t afford to mine coal. The environmental cost to our children is just too great.