Guest editorial: Was coal mine expansion the right decision? – Helena Independent Record, March 28, 2014

March 28, 2014

Categories: Climate change, Coal, Member news, News

By Duane Catlett

The Montana Land Board did the expected last Tuesday by approving the Ohio-based Signal Peak Energy application to double the size of its Bull Mountain mine. Ignoring the mine’s effects on climate change and human health, in approving its expansion Gov. Bullock cited an additional $127.2 million in state revenue from taxes and royalties on the 640 acres of state coal reserves and the 325 workers whose jobs will supposedly contribute $40 million a year to the area’s economy as the reason for the board’s approval. The expansion will extend the lifetime of the mine another nine years. Although the economic benefits might substantially benefit Musselshell County residents for the near term, they are meager from the broader state perspective and offer nothing for Montana’s sustainable economic future.

When asked by the Land Board about the coal price trend, Signal Peak’s chief engineer responded by admitting that the price has been steadily decreasing. The reason is obvious. The toxic nature of burning coal is well understood, including by the coal industry itself, and utilities are increasingly transitioning to natural-gas-fired plants rather than upgrading coal-fired plants. Also, counter to what the industry would have us believe, China, the targeted market for Signal Peak coal as well as the proposed Otter Creek Mine, is rapidly reducing its dependence on coal.

Reuters news agency on Monday reported that China’s state council just committed to bring 60 percent of China’s cities into compliance with world pollution standards by 2020. Almost none are in compliance today. China has selected seven regions to launch a pilot carbon trading system with a planned national market to cut emissions per unit of GDP by 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. China will be rapidly transitioning out of coal-fired power plants and into nuclear and renewable power sources to meet their objectives.

Does it sound like Montana really should continue to sacrifice precious environmental and human resources and use its limited coal impact funds to upgrade city rail crossings to support the hazardous and dying economics of coal mining, trading and transporting?

For the short term, Montana realizes modest economic gains, but at the price of failure to aggressively pursue the energy technologies of the future. Cleaner alternative technologies are already on par economically with the fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and the only thing holding them back is a temporary lack of infrastructure. Rather than continuing to pour trillions of dollars into continuation of the enormous federal and state subsidies to the fossil fuels industries and modernizing fossil fuel infrastructures, we should use that money to construct the state and national infrastructure needed to support the zero-carbon energy sources of the future. That transition should begin now, and it would generate millions of jobs to more than replace those lost by the fossil fuels industry.

Most importantly, it would provide the quality of life, both economically and environmentally, that both Republicans and Democrats claim they want for our future generations.

So, the question becomes, “Will we walk the talk and really work to create the future we claim we want for our children and grandchildren?”

The “Treasure State” has a rich mining history, one we are all proud of. But a realistic view reflects that our past cannot be repeated for a sustainable future.  It would be wise for our state leaders at all levels to focus on making Montana a national leader in developing, manufacturing and installing economically efficient, reliable, zero-carbon clean energy sources that create sustainable jobs for our workers with livable wages and good benefits.

The future begins now. Let’s embrace it, promote it and invest aggressively and heavily to make it our reality. Future generations depend on it.


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