By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA — Paying attention to Montana media outlets in the past week or two, people might assume the anti-coal activists who occupied the Capitol are simply Treasure State residents concerned about Otter Creek mine development in the southeastern portion of the state.
They would be wrong.
Two weeks ago, a small gaggle of anti-coal activists and left-wing environmentalists descended on Montana from out-of-state to demonstrate against Otter Creek mine and the exportation of its black riches.
Consequently, the out-of-staters also stood against high-paying jobs for Montanans, as well as millions in additional revenue for state and local government programs.
Call it anti-coal carpet-bagging.
Of course, some Montanans participated in the weeklong demonstration that began Aug. 13. The Blue Skies Campaign, a Missoula-based environmental group, led the anti-coal charge but received help from Coal Export Action, a national left-wing organization fighting coal exports.
That group’s website asked for outsiders to rally support and offered logistical details to aid travel plans, going as far as to offer subsidies to people lacking the means to trek to Montana.
It also touted the $1 showers available at a local water park.
Activists from at least 15 states traveled to Montana to protest coal, according to a blogger on the left-wing Daily Kos site.
The activists contended the Otter Creek mine will irreparably damage the fight against global climate change because China, a country with fewer environmental safeguards than the U.S., will burn the coal. They also took issue with the increased train traffic needed to ship the coal from Montana to West Coast ports.
Arch Coal, a St. Louis-based mining outfit, will strip-mine Otter Creek, in eastern Montanan just north of the Wyoming border. The mine holds 74 billion tons of recoverable coal, and Arch holds rights to about 572 million tons of that.
In full production by the end of the decade, the mine should generate about 50 million tons annually.
Protesting a 3-2 decision by the Montana Land Board in 2010 to lease the mine to Arch Coal, activists occupied the Capitol, spending time sitting around, holding signs and chatting with anyone willing to listen.
Oh, and getting arrested, too. Helena police arrested 23 protesters for refusing to leave the Capitol at closing time.
“Getting arrested is never a goal in itself – in fact, it’s something people would rather avoid,” Coal Export Action website says. “We raised the bar for climate activism in this state, and we showed we’re willing to put our bodies on the line if that’s what it takes to stop a disaster.”
The activists also put their bodies on the line to stop jobs – lots of them – coming to the state when unemployment is 6.3 percent. Neighboring North Dakota has a 3 percent jobless rate thanks to its oil boom, demonstrating that energy puts people back to work, even in a slumping economy.
A May 2012 study by University of Montana researchers Patrick M. Barkey and Paul G. Polzin reveals as many as 2,648 new jobs will flow to the state during peak mine and railroad construction, bringing $103.5 million in new personal income to the state. Eastern Montanans’ household incomes should increase about 8 percent, the duo said.
Continuing mine operations will mean 1,740 permanent jobs and $125 million in new annual income, generating at least $91 million in annual tax revenue for the state.
The anti-coal protesters also stood against properly funding education initiatives for Montana’s children.
Of the $86 million Arch Coal paid to lease the mine, the state funneled a whopping 95 percent of it – about $81.7 million – to the general school support fund.
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer is an ardent supporter of the Otter Creek mine development. When the Land Board approved the lease, the governor said ongoing tax revenue would be rather hefty, estimating the state would see at least $5 billion over the mine’s life, or $250 million annually into government coffers.
At the March 18, 2010, Land Board meeting, Schweitzer said the new revenue would fund infrastructure upgrades, as well as provide care for the disabled and additional money for environmental initiatives.
The governor playfully mocked the activists in an appearance last week on the Voice of Montana radio show, pointing out coal provides at least 50 percent of the state’s energy – power the governor said protesters used to recharge their laptops, mobile phones and music players.
Schweitzer also lightheartedly poked fun at protesters’ discomfort with Montana heat and their reliance on coal power for personal comfort. “…At one point, a representative came to speak to the people who manage the Capitol and asked if they could maybe turn up the air conditioner and bring the temperature down just a little bit because it was kind of hot in the Capitol,” Schweitzer related, obviously amused with the logical disconnect.
Others treated the protesters’ presence with more disdain.
State Sen. Ed Walker, R-Billings, wrote last week that left-wing activists vainly block Montanan’s economic progress. “Reducing Montana’s coal production hurts our state’s economy, but doesn’t accomplish much else,” Walker wrote in a Ravalli Republic guest column.
If China were unable to buy large quantities of coal from Montana, Walker’s reasoning goes, they would buy it elsewhere. The natural resource-spurred economic stimulus, he wrote, wouldn’t be felt in Montana, but coal would still burn in China.
“The anti-coal protest is aimed at voters in Montana,” Walker explained. “The environmentalists are making their case that Montana can do without more coal production. What voters really need to recognize is the incredible economic opportunity our state will be giving up if we elect the environmentalists’ anti-coal candidates.”
Contact Dustin Hurst via email at Dustin@Watchdog.org