Guest opinion: Now is the time to cut back on coal

April 18, 2014

Categories: Clean Energy, Climate change, Coal, News

By Greg Tollefson
April 17, 2014

A week or so ago, you read about Jan and Harold Hoem and their documentary film, “Coal Road to China,” in this newspaper. And, if you were one of those fortunate enough to find a seat at one of the local showings last week, you may share my gratitude to the Hoems and the others who contributed to the effort to complete the film. I’m grateful because the film served to underscore what many have known for a long time but have sidestepped thinking too much about. We in Montana live right up close to resource extraction activities that carry serious implications for the future health and welfare of the Earth. That’s a big deal.

I’m talking about coal.

It has long been well known that relying on coal as a primary energy source is a dead-end path for all of us. Other local activists, Gene Bernofsky, for one, have chosen the medium of film to tilt gallantly at this same windmill as well as others over the years. Even so, it’s easy to forget that the battles related to coal mining, coal-bed methane development, coal burning, coal transportation, and their effects on agricultural activities and the traditional way of life in rural southeast Montana and Wyoming and public health in general have been waged for decades. Many farmers and ranchers in the Tongue River and Rosebud Country and throughout the Powder River Basin have battled the energy industry for their entire adult lives to protect their land and the precious water that flows through it.

Upon watching the film and considering the many threats posed by our bowing to promises of high-paying jobs and short-term economic gain, what becomes clear is that no single impact of coal use gives the complete picture. Although the water resources threatened by coal extraction and burning are immensely important to local agriculture, and in the long term to all of us, the water is only one concern. Coal extraction, transportation and burning all have their impacts, and as far as we know right now, the greatest of these is the runaway increase in carbon dioxide emissions from burning. The price we may end up paying if we do not do something to cut back on coal use sooner than later is almost incomprehensible. It should be sobering for all of us to consider the fact that we end up breathing the smoke from the coal that passes through our town on the way to Asia in a matter of days after it has been burned. It takes longer for the coal to get there from here than it does for the smoke to get back here.

The quickest way to address this problem is to take action to cut back on those carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. That can start in some small way right here in Montana.

It is always much easier to write those words than to live them. And despite much more scientific proof than should be required to convince the world of the urgency of the call for action, there continue to be many naysayers.

That’s not new.

There was a time not very long ago when my mere mention of the possibility of global climate change induced by human activities such as coal burning would have brought me a mailbag full of unsigned screeds accusing me of everything from being a communist sympathizer to serving as a witless dupe of backers of the mysterious U.N Agenda 21.

It’s not that way so much these days, in part because few bother to actually write nasty letters anymore; they have been replaced with anonymous online comments that seem to foul the air around almost any issue that comes up. So, because I don’t read anonymous comments, unless you call, send me a personal email or sit down and write me a letter, I will never know what you had to say about what I have to say here.

People I know who share great concern about the future we are shaping for our children and grandchildren often throw up their hands in despair because it seems an impossible task to turn the tide toward alternative sources of energy and new ways of living sustainably. From time to time, I find myself thinking it is all hopeless. And to compound the difficulty, coal burning is just one of the things we need to address quickly in terms of how human beings live upon and treat this still generous Earth. I try to remember that throughout human history, even as we have so often despoiled the planet in so many ways, people have worked tirelessly to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to make this a better and safer world. It can be done.

That, I think, was the message carried by the Hoems and the others who shared their experience and their wisdom in the film. I can’t help but smile when I consider the name of the group they have formed with like-minded friends to carry their message forward: Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow. The acronym, of course, is MELT.

Earth Day is right around the corner. Isn’t it about time we turn the corner on coal, too?

Greg Tollefson is a Missoula outdoorsman and writer whose column appears each Thursday in the Missoulian Outdoors section.


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