Archive for December, 2009

Background on the Otter Creek Coal Tracts

photo courtesy of the Billings Gazette

The Montana State Land Board, consisting of the five top elected officials in the state and chaired by the Governor, “manages” the use of state-owned land as a source of revenue, most notably to fund schools with.  Any exploitation of public lands bodes well for these politicians, all democrats, because it “benefits the children of Montana”.  The State stands to earn a couple hundred million dollars over the course of several decades by allowing Arch Coal to dig up 1.3 billion tons of coal from under the Otter Creek Valley.

If the 1.3 billion tons of coal are extracted, this will result in 2.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary climate-change causing greenhouse gas, being emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere either during the mining and transport process or when the coal is burned.  This will effectively double or triple the rate of carbon emissions for the state of Montana over the three decades that Otter Creek coal is expected to last if it is mined.

The coal under Otter Creek is rather high in sodium, as coal-ore goes.  There are currently only a few coal-fired power plants in the United States designed to handle this type of coal, so the market for it will likely not even be in the U.S.  Not a problem for Arch Coal, which has already admitted that it plans to ship the coal overseas if that is what it takes to find buyers.

The plan for transporting the coal to market involves construction of the Tongue River Railroad, which would carry the coal approximately 120 miles north to link into the national rail system.  This rail would potentially destroy cultural and archeological sites important to many Northern Cheyenne families who have current and former homesteads along the river as well as cut across many settlers’ pasture lands, fracturing their ranches into two, restricting free access to all parts of their range and restricting livestock and wildlife free access to the river for drinking.  The ranchers would need to install expensive and inefficient irrigation systems to sustain their stock.  The railroad would add toxins and sediments to the Tongue River, threatening the ecological stability of the river, as well as two managed fisheries in particular.  And the traffic from repeated trains passing through settlements, including within feet of an elementary school, would cause extensive and unnecessary hardship on communities.

Many rivers around the globe have already been pronounced “biologically dead” due to release of mine waste (called tailings) containing rocks, metals and poisons into lakes and waterways.  Aquatic plant and animal life are choked with toxic sediment.  Surface mining of coal completely eliminates existing vegetation and destroys biological soil structure, creating a biological vacuum for noxious weeds to take over after the mining ends.  This loss of biological diversity extends to animal life also.

So called “clean coal technology” is a myth, because all other arguments aside, coal is always dirty at the point of extraction.  Blasting of soil and exhaust from machinery degrades air quality near mines.  Sedimentation and runoff of industrial chemicals and acid rock drainage degrade water quality.  And blasting, digging, bulldozing and other mine activities, as well as chemicals and heavy metals left as waste degrade soil quality.  Methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than CO2, may be released by mining.

Short-term jobs created by this developement would be overshadowed by the long-term effects on the land, air, water, climate and social health of Montana’s and the whole Earth’s communities.  Financial benefits to Montana’s students have even been snubbed by some of the students themselves, preferring to have an inhabitable planet instead.

On December 21, 2009, the State Land Board voted on whether to lease the public portions of the Otter Creek checkerboard area for coal mining.  Despite heavy public opposition and testimony, the board voted 4 to 1 to lease the land.  Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction (the very department which stood to gain directly from mining Otter Creek), was the lone dissenter.  In her statement of opposition she said, “We could sell every parcel of state land and log every tree on state lands, but we don’t. We don’t because we want to sustain Montana’s lands for the future beneficial use. That is sound stewardship.”

Denise Juneau votes in favor of future generations

Denise Juneau, Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, showed courage and wisdom in her comments explaining why she voted against the leasing of the Otter Creek Coal Tracts on December 21.  She was the only member of the five person State Land Board to do so.

This is a huge issue for many Montanans. I know we have all heard many arguments, both pro and con, from hundreds of citizens all across this state. I appreciated our public hearings in Miles City and Lame Deer, in addition to all the public comment at our meetings here in Helena. I value all of the input and advice that poured in from many different fronts, tribal, county, business, environmental, political, and industry. This decision is not easy, and I know each of us spent hours reading, discussing, and meeting about this issue and I respect every board member’s vote Monday. After weighing every component and factor, I have come to the conclusion that I must vote “no” on going forward to lease the Otter Creek tracts.

Those who support development might say that I am not meeting my fiduciary responsibility by refusing a simple “yes” vote. A “yes” vote might result in bonus bid funds to off-set general fund obligations of the legislature. It is not that simple, however. A “yes” vote would not necessarily be in the best interests of the school trust beneficiaries. It is time for us to be visionary. We cannot vote as if we have blinders on and only see our present economic picture. We must take lessons from the past 7 generations and also look forward and provide for the interests of the next 7 generations.

Of course there is value in mining the coal, potentially a lot of money over the next 40-50 years, but there is also value in keeping Montana “Montana.” A large part of Montana’s economic history is from extracting non-renewable resources. We are all familiar with Berkley Pit, the mining consequences at the Milltown Dam, and the physical and financial repercussions of the vermiculite mine in Libby.

There is an argument that the immediate value gained in extracting this finite resource might be lost in other, tangible costs to the state and its people, including school children. Montana’s future economy and the sustainable value to the school trust lands could very well be in preserving the land for future beneficiaries. Whether for other purposes or future development, technology continues to advance. The coal is not going anywhere. It is entirely possible that these lands will only become more valuable.

Critics might also say a “no” vote means I don’t support our schools. That is just silly, of course I support our schools. I support our schools so much that I ran for the office that oversees all of our public schools. We need to remember the amount of funding going to our schools is a decision for the legislature, and is not based on this vote. I am not turning my back on money for schools. I am upholding my duty and my responsibility to the children of this great state and saying that the greatest value and the best use of that land should not be determined by this board Monday.

The land board has been diligent in its development of resources and leasing of lands all across this state. We could sell every parcel of state land and log every tree on state lands, but we don’t. We don’t because we want to sustain Montana’s lands for the future beneficial use. That is sound stewardship.

In this case, development is a one shot deal. The determination of the real value of this land should not hinge on this vote. I cannot in good faith vote to disregard the future potential of these lands.

Thank you Governor for allowing me this explanation of my vote Monday.

Montana Land Board opens the door for coal extraction.

  

A protestor on the capitol steps.

 

Helena, MT – The Montana State Land Board, which overseas the use of state lands as sources of revenue for Montana’s schools, paved the way for climate change and environmental destruction in a show of blatant contempt for the democratic process on this winter solstice.  In a “public” meeting at the state capitol the Board, comprised of the state’s top elected officials, including Governor Schweitzer, heard testimony from about thirty citizens opposed to the proposal that the Board allow a checkerboard of public lands in southeastern Montana known as the Otter Creek Coal Tracts to be destroyed by the highest bidder.  Commentors included ranchers who implored the board not to let the ranchers’ lands be cut in two by the Tongue River Railroad (a key component of mine developement plans at Otter Creek), high school students and teachers who flatly stated that they would rather go unfunded than accept money from coal exploitation, environmental groups and individuals.  Northern Rockies Rising Tide was among the attendees. 

A student tells the land board that she doesn’t want their coal money.

Following a short rally on the capitol steps, opponents of the mining plan filled the hearing room with people, banners and picket signs, leading Governor Schweitzer to condescendingly compare the scene to that at a football game and dubbed it “festive”.  It was not a game to the protestors, some of whom looked the Board members in the eyes and went on public record calling mining of Otter Creek “ecocide” and the revenue from it “blood money”. 

After pretending to listen to all the testimony and patronizingly complimenting the youngest of the speakers for participating in the “democratic” process, the Board members read their pre-written statements of support for the motion and cast their votes in favor of mining Otter Creek.  The only dissenter was Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction, the official in charge of the very institution which stood to gain financially from Otter Creek Coal.  While the other Board members hid behind the cover of “responsibility”, saying that the constitution required them to take the money, Juneau took the approach of “accountability” to the students she oversees, choosing instead to try to protect their futures. 

The fight to save Otter Creek is only just beginning.  With this unfortunate first vote, the process of taking bids from coal companies seeking “rights” to the lands is underway.  The highest bidder is expected to be Arch Coal, Inc.  For more mainstream perspective click here

Two Rising Tide activists hold up a banner where it could not be ignored.