The view from Missoula – Otter Creek Coal pursuit suspended – Missoula Independent, March 17, 2016

March 17, 2016

Categories: Agriculture, Coal, News, Northern Plains Resource Council

By Alex Sakariassen

When Carolyn Walker first heard last week that Arch Coal had suspended its permitting efforts for a massive mine in southeastern Montana, it came in the form of a phone call from fellow coal activist Louise Dunlop in Washington, D.C., Dunlop was “in tears,” Walker recalls, overjoyed that the longstanding battle over Otter Creek had apparently come to an end. Walker too was heartened. While she now lives in Missoula, she ranched in the Tongue River country throughout the 1970s and ’80s and has been a tireless opponent of the mine proposal.

“I was really excited to hear it,” says Walker, who also helped found the Northern Plains Resource Council. “I can’t believe it. You hold your breath.”

 ‘No future in dirty coal’

Arch Coal’s March 10 announcement was hailed as a victory by environmental activists across Montana, proof, wrote Earthjustice’s Jenny Harbine, that “there is no future in dirty coal.” Coal advocates, meanwhile, declared it a setback that would cost the state thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in revenue, the result, said nonprofit Count on Coal Montana, of a “War on Coal being waged by environmental groups and politicians.”

For many in Missoula, Arch Coal’s suspension was further affirmation that the questions and concerns raised here in recent years were not entirely unfounded. Organizations like 350 Missoula and the Blue Skies Campaign have hosted numerous track-side protests against increased coal train traffic. The Missoula City Council has passed two resolutions since 2014 requesting that the Surface Transportation Board consider impacts to down-rail communities when reviewing the proposed Tongue River Railroad, which was also put on ice indefinitely in late November.

Missoula ‘dodged a bullet’

Councilman Jordan Hess, who carried the second resolution last September, says he’s pleased the community “dodged a bullet” in terms of the potential health and connectivity impacts associated with the projects. Missoula’s participation in the debate was “critical and probably impactful,” Hess says, “but also part of a broader movement across the country.”

Of course, there were bigger factors in Arch Coal’s call to halt its permitting efforts. The St. Louis-based company filed for bankruptcy in January and the precipitous decline in natural gas prices coupled with a dramatic drop in Chinese coal imports has the industry as a whole struggling. Arch Coal pegged its Otter Creek decision not on a war on coal but on “capital constraints, near-term weakness in coal markets and an extended and uncertain permitting outlook.”

Even so, Councilman Bryan von Lossberg doesn’t discount the significance of Missoula’s anti-coal groundswell.

“While this specific situation at this specific point in time is largely driven by natural gas prices,” he says, “I think the resolutions and the activity by all of these organizations have served a broader important function in informing the public and keeping them active and keeping them diligent.”

220 South 27th Street, Suite A
Billings, Montana 59101
(406) 248-1154