Posts Tagged ‘ Denise Juneau ’

Northern Rockies RT Shuts Down Land Board Meeting!

Five activists with Northern Rockies Rising Tide (NRRT) shut down a meeting of the Montana State Land Board in Helena, MT last Thursday, temporarily halting the leasing of 572 million tons of state-owned coal reserves. Following over two hours of public comment regarding the leasing of the Otter Creek Coal Tracts and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s move to accept the bid, the five activists staged a sit-in, disrupting the meeting as they chanted “You’re not listening! Hands off Otter Creek!” Rushing the front of the Land Board meeting room and locked down to each, the activists refused to leave until the decision to accept the bid was tabled indefinitely (or they were arrested). After halting the bidding process for nearly an hour all five were finally arrested and taken to the Lewis and Clark County Jail with charges of disorderly conduct. All five posted bail and were released Thursday evening.

Unfortunately, after the sit-in was broken up by the police the Land Board proceeded to award the lease to mine the Otter Creek coal tracts to Ark Land Company, a subsidiary of mining industry giant Arch Coal Inc., for just under $86 million, or 15 cents per ton of coal.

After spending months submitting public comments, writing letters to the editor, testifying in front of the Land Board, and taking all possible action within official channels, opponents of the lease (ranchers, high school students, environmental justice advocates, and other Montana citizens) realized what they had suspected all along: the supposedly democratic process for leasing state lands in Montana is far from democratic.

From every corner of the state Montanans have overwhelmingly vocalized their opposition to the lease (including high school walkouts and other public demonstrations), but three of the five members of the Land Board–Governor Schweitzer, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, and State Auditor Monica Lindeen–have refused to stand up to the pressures of “King Coal.” In particular, the NRRT activists complained that the impact of Otter Creek coal on climate change was not taken into account. In fact, at one of the Land Board hearings Gov. Schweitzer refused to allow activists to talk about climate change because he said that the issue of the Otter Creek Coal Tracts is not about coal burning but is strictly about coal mining. Unless he’s going to turn coal into freakin’ chocolate brownies it’s hard to see his logic there. What else do you do with coal but burn it (well, liquefy it, but that’s not Arch’s plan, nor is it a solution to the climate crisis)?

The Otter Creek coal tracts are located in southeastern Montana in the northern Powder River Basin. They are arranged in a “checkerboard” land ownership pattern whereby the state of Montana owns half of the tracts and Great Northern Properties owns the other rest. Great Northern Properties’ portion of the tracts were leased to Arch Coal in November. Overall the Otter Creek tracts contain about 1.3 billion tons of coal.

Otter Creek opponents also believe that the development of the Otter Creek tracts is sending Montana down a slippery slope of coal development that will lead to a windfall of strip mining operations in the region, replete with the usual environmental and social catastrophes. Currently, there is very little railroad infrastructure in the northern Powder River Basin. By leasing the Otter Creek tracts the Montana state government has guaranteed that the Tongue River Railroad will be built, which will open up the northern

Powder River Basin to massive coal development. The northern Powder River Basin alone (not including Wyoming’s portion of the Powder River Basin) contains approximately 9% of the entire world’s coal reserves.

Leasing the Otter Creek coal tracts would not only devastate the communities through which the Tongue River Railroad would pass, but, as we all now know, we must immediately stop burning coal and other hydrocarbons if we are to avert a total global disaster. According to Nobel laureate and University of Montana professor Steve Running, “This is where the rubber meets the road,” in terms of climate change.

When the coal from the Otter Creek Tracts is burned in coal fired power plants it will release approximately 2.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The burning of this coal will most likely not be in the U.S. In November, when Arch Coal leased Great Northern Properties’ coal, they said as much: Faced with the possibility of national climate legislation and carbon caps, Arch, as always, is on the forefront of innovative corporate solutions–they’ll just ship their coal to Asian markets where they won’t have to worry about such progressive restraints on the free market.

The land that contains the Otter Creek coal reserves belongs to the Montana State School Trust. The state of Montana owns 6 million acres of such land and leases out this land for various ventures such as resource extraction projects, cattle grazing allotments, and even a few wind farms. The money from these projects funds the K-12 school system. The Otter Creek Coal mine will be the largest single project ever on School Trust Land and will ensure that Montana’s school system will be funded by dirty coal money for years to come. In February, outrage over the leasing of Otter Creek grew among high school students to the point that there were a series of high school walkouts in which Montana’s students stated loud and clear “no dirty coal money for textbooks and computers!”

Ironically on the same day the Otter Creek Coal Tracts were leased, Federal District Judge Malloy in Missoula, MT suspended 38,000 acres of oil and gas leases on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in Montana as a result of a law suit brought by the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project and Wild Earth Guardians. The environmental groups sued the BLM on the grounds that the oil and gas drilling process releases too much methane into the air. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide and approximately 23% of all U.S. methane emissions are from oil and gas leasing projects. Another major source of methane is from coalbed methane, and is released during the process of coal mining. Given that most of the coal in the Powder River Basin is on public land owned by the federal government, as well as MT and WY state governments, it will be interesting to see in the coming years if this will also become a strategy to stop coal mines on public lands.

The fight to stop the Otter Creek coal mine is just beginning, and we’re not going to stop until we win. Hands off Otter Creek!

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Land Board waffles, Hellgate High School students protest Otter Creek lease

On Tuesday, February 16, the Montana State Land Board once again made a mockery of the “democratic process,” ignoring the solid and heartfelt arguments of the public as it moved to give Otter Creek away for a pittance, caving under pressure from mega-corporation Arch Coal. At the previous meeting of the Board, a bonus bid of 25 cents per ton was set as a supposed minimum sale price to avoid subsidizing controversial aspects of the Otter Creek mining proposal, such as the Tongue River Railroad. However, a majority of the board members are apparently so desperate to destroy the pristine alluvial Otter Creek valley in southeastern Montana that when no companies accepted the already undervalued price by the February 9 bidding deadline, they voted 3-2 to lower the asking price and try again.

February 16th Mt Land Board meeting

Environmentalists, Northern Cheyenne tribal members, educators, students, ranchers, business people, and Northern Rockies Rising Tide attended the meeting to tell the land board to stop the proposed ecocide at Otter Creek. Gov. Brian Schweitzer received particular attention from the public commenters as he was confronted about his corrupt business affairs such as the $100,000 campaign contribution he reportedly received from Arch Coal Co., the primary corporate interest in Otter Creek.

The only response the land board received by the February 9 bidding deadline was a letter from Ark Land Co., an Arch Coal subsidiary, asking for the price to be lowered. Arch Coal already holds the lease on adjoining coal tracts owned by Houston-based Great Northern Properties. As the state and private lands are positioned in checkerboard fashion, it is widely accepted that the coal could not be feasibly mined by Arch without access to both the Great Northern and Montana School Trust Lands at Otter Creek.

As opponents to mining at Otter Creek faced an increased number of comments by mining proponents, primarily paid union officials pontificating to the all-democrat Land Board about job creation, the meeting took on a more contentious tone than previous ones. Testimony included more direct verbal attacks on the land board members themselves, particularly the Governor. One protester breifly shouted down Gov. Schweitzer about ten minutes into the his twenty minute speech justifying the leasing of Otter Creek (a speech so full of strange non sequiters, including a very bizarre metaphor comparing democracy to a grapefruit, that many of the Governor’s listeners walked away more confused than convinced). As Schweitzer was rambling on about coal bid prices and other purposely convoluted economic rhetoric, the person in the “peanut gallery” yelled out “Your three minutes are up, Governor!” referring to the three minute time-limit set on public comments.

Hellgate students at the courthouse

Students from Hellgate high School in Missoula, MT march against the leasing of the Otter Creek Coal Tracts

Only Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Steve Bullock, Montana Attorney General, voted against lowering the bid price.

Later in the afternoon on February 16, students from Hellgate High School in Missoula marched with chants and picket signs from their school, across the Higgins Street Bridge on the Clark Fork River, to the Missoula County courthouse in protest of the Land Board’s plans to give away Otter Creek to be mined. This is the second protest by high school students in as many weeks about Otter Creek. One week prior, on February 9, students from nearby Big Sky High School left class early in a similar protest.

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See our VIDEOS page for full testimonials from Helena.

No bids on Otter Creek, students stage walkout.

The Montana State Land Board received no bids for Otter Creek coal by the 5pm deadline Monday, February 8th.  Though four of the five members of the Land Board voted to receive bids from companies to mine 616 million tons of coal at Otter Creek, near Ashland, MT, the only response submitted was a letter from Ark Land Co. saying that the price was too high.  Ark, a subsidiary of St. Louis based Arch Coal Co., and infamous for swindling property owners out of their families’ lands in Appalachia for King Coal’s war on mountain tops, is reported to have stated that the royalty price of 12.5 percent was more than Ark is willing to pay.  Though no alternative royalty rate appears to have been suggested, state law requires a minimum of 10.5 percent for coal mined from any state-owned land in Montana.

The Land Board convenes next Tuesday, February 16th, in Helena to discuss their next course of action.  They have the option of lowering either the royalty or bonus bid prices in hopes of winning over some bidders.  They could also decide to stay true to some board members’ December 21, 2009 affirmations that the state will not subsidize Otter Creek development through rock-bottom prices.

“The State of Montana will not subsidize the Tongue River Railroad,” said Gov. Schweitzer during the December 21st meeting, referring to the rail line proposed to provide easy access for Otter Creek coal to the national rail system.  The railroad has been opposed by area property owners and ranchers for over three decades due to excessive ecological, social and economic impacts it would impose on the Tongue River area.

Big Sky students rally against Otter Creek coal.

In Missoula on Tuesday, February 9th, about 100 students from Big Sky High School walked out of class early to protest the proposed leasing of Otter Creek coal, and to send a message to the Land Board that students do not want coal mined in their names.  The Otter Creek coal tracts are located under state school-trust lands, which means all income the state receives from exploitation of those lands should be used to fund the state’s education system.  After leaving classes in defiance of Big Sky administrators’ efforts to enforce school authority, many students then marched about a mile to the busy intersection of South & Reserve where they held a rally, chanting slogans such as “No blood for money!  We gotta keep Otter Creek!”

“We, as students from Big Sky High School, do not want our school funding to come from coal,” said Allison Lawrence, one of the protesters at the rally.  “We would rather live with old books than get blood money for shiny new computers.”

Students walking out of class in protest.

On Thursday, February 11, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will submit its official recommendation to the Land Board about a next course of action to be taken at the February 16 meeting.  It is worth mentioning that the only member of the Land Board to vote against leasing Otter Creek at the last meeting is Denise Juneau, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the very institution that would supposedly benefit financially from mining Otter Creek!  If other members who voted for leasing the coal tracts only on the condition of getting maximum income from the lease stay true to their words, then next week’s meeting could result in an end to this whole misguided attempt to destroy pristine Montana land.  A refusal to lower the bid and royalty prices may effectively protect Otter Creek… for now.

Join Northern Rockies Rising Tide and others at the next Land Board meeting, 9:00am on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at the Montana State Capitol in Helena.  Help us make sure that Montana’s top politicians know that their attempts to mine Otter Creek are lacking the consent of Montanans!

Otter Creek: We’re not done yet.

On December 21st the Montana State Land Board opened the bidding process to lease the coal beneath Otter Creek. All bids are due by the end of the day on February 8th. By the 9th we should know what kind of bids were recieved. At the next Land Board meeting, on February 16th, the decision to accept or reject a bid will be made. Three things could happen:

1. The Land Board recieves the full asking bid of $.25/ton of coal and approves (or rejects) the lease right then and there.

2. The Land Board recieves a bid of less than the asking price, under $.25/ton. They then debate whether to reduce the price and accept (or reject) the under-bid.

3. The Land Board recieves no bid at all. They then debate whether to lower the asking price or reject leasing Otter Creek altogether.

Through all this, there is one important thing to remember: the Land Board made the decision to open the bidding process thinking that Montanans didn’t care about Otter Creek, that it wasn’t important to us.  On December 21st the Land Board heard more public testimony in opposition to the Otter Creek lease proposal than it had for any other single issue…ever.

After the meeting, their decision received widespread media attention which catalyzed a steady flow of calls to the LB, letters to the editor, and public pressure all touting the danger of leasing Otter Creek. This pressure has had an effect, and we need to keep it up. Call the Land Board and tell them what you think about Otter Creek, write a letter to the editor supporting Denise Juneau and asking the rest to follow her example, and check back here for upcoming actions, protests, and media events.

Background on Otter Creek and the proposal can be found here

If you want to be a part of the planning process for any of this, please stop by our weekly meetings.

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.