Bozeman group hoping to stop coal in its tracks


Marshall Swearingen

Protsters gathered in Bozeman on Saturday to show their opposition to railroad coal shipments. Similar protests are tentatively planned for Billings later this fall.

A gray sky spits cold drizzle as a dozen protesters gather on a gritty road shoulder in north Bozeman. They take up signs—”COAL KILLS” one reads—and wave to passing traffic. But their attention is mostly on the railroad tracks a hundred feet away.

Scott Black, an organizer with the activist group Blue Skies Campaign, gives the protesters the run-down: Montana Rail Link has granted permission for this little assembly, which the company claims is on railroad property. But if anyone takes to the tracks in an attempt to stop a coal-carrying train—a possibility everyone is expecting—there will be a warning from Rail Link, then probably arrest by city police, maybe even jail time.

Black rallies the troops: this is a chance “to show that people around the world are standing up against the system that has lead to climate change,” he says.

A couple of days earlier, I spoke with another Blue Skies organizer, Nick Engelfried, to learn about the group’s goals. He told me emphatically: “We need to burn less coal.” Coal, he explained, is the single biggest contributor to human-caused climate change—it’s widely used to generate electricity, and pound for pound it produces more climate-altering carbon dioxide than any fossil fuel.

More to the point of the protest, Engelfried said, Montana is in a unique position to affect global climate change one way or the other. It has the largest coal reserves of any state, and ranks among the top producers. Whether it continues to develop those coal resources will have an impact that ripples far beyond the state line.

A half-dozen Montana mines supplied 42 million tons of coal in 2013, enough to fill a train stretching from Anchorage to Houston. A quarter of that was burned in Montana, producing electricity for states as far away as Washington. Half was shipped to power plants in several other states. Another quarter was hauled—on west-bound trains like the one the protesters are waiting for—to Canada, and mostly barged to Asia.

Coal proponents want to expand those exports. Their plans center on a proposed mine at Otter Creek, in southeastern Montana, and a railroad spur—the Tongue River Railroad—that would connect the mine to the main rail network. The state is currently reviewing the mine proposal; the federal Surface Transportation Board is reviewing the railroad.

The Bozeman protest, Engelfried said, is part of his group’s effort to draw attention to those plans, and to put pressure on the state and federal agencies to nix them.

The protest is also part of a larger movement called Flood the System. Several similar gatherings are planned around the country. Engelfried said protests could take place in Billings and other Montana communities this fall. This follows a summer of high-profile demonstrations: activists in Seattle swarmed an Arctic-bound drilling rig with kayaks; in Portland, they dangled from a bridge and stalled another Arctic-drilling vessel. In September, Engelfried and others gathered on the tracks in Missoula, stopping a coal train for over an hour.

Meanwhile, Montana coal is threatened by bigger forces. A glut of cheap natural gas has weaned many utilities off coal already. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, released on August, will could spur additional coal plant closures. And as the region’s coal companies look to new ports on the West Coast to facilitate Asian export and prop up the market, their plans have hit permitting snags and sagging Asian demand.

Still, several coal trains rumble through Bozeman each day. The first problem with trying to stop one is, you never know when it will arrive.

An hour has passed when a train horn sounds around the bend. Some of the protesters flock to the tracks.

The crossing arms flash, ding and drop. Two Montana Rail Link employees who have been watching from their truck across the street now get out and shuffle over.

The train comes into view. The horn blares. Word quickly circulates—this train is not carrying coal. Its cars are enclosed, and almost certainly carry grain.

Passing drivers pepper us with a few honks and waves. A half hour passes before the next train rumbles by, again carrying less-than-provocative cargo. This, and the cold drizzle, dampen spirits. Numbers dwindle.

Stopping coal in its tracks will have to wait for another day.

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