I was a month into my first job out of college at a tiny weekly in southeastern Montana. I was 22, bored and lonely. But I had a car, and that counted for something.
To see what was out there, I drove 70 miles to Ashland, a strip of Forest Service field offices, bars and cafes. The waitress pouring coffee at one of the diners told me she lived with her parents in a nearby Amish colony, though they weren't Amish. She also said she was going to high school on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, though she wasn't Indian. I thought she'd make a fine novelist someday. She didn't make good coffee.
From Ashland, I took a right down a dirt road that followed the Tongue River. The valley was wide and flat, and the river practically folded over itself as it wound to its confluence with the Yellowstone. Custer died fighting just one valley over, and his legacy lived on, with the river forming the border of the reservation and splitting one town into two, Birney and Indian Birney—though their populations together could barely justify the ink needed to put a dot on the map.
I took a small hike, rousted some jackrabbits from the sagebrush, and wrote a bad poem about it all. And I didn't think about coal.
Not that there wasn't coal to think about. In fact, I had just driven straight through King Coal's primary Western realm. I was a left turn and 15 minutes from the Decker Coal Mine—once one of the biggest surface coal mines in the country—when I decided to head home to Hardin, which itself hosts a small coal-fired power plant fed by a mine owned by another area tribe, the Crow.
Geographically, King Coal's realm is the Powder River Basin, which sits mostly in Wyoming but pokes a finger into Montana. Coal is so prevalent there that local tribes considered the land sacred, as the deposits would naturally catch fire and send smoke up from the ground. In the 1970s, major coal mining began in earnest in the area, and by 1987, Wyoming had become the largest producer in the country. Today a full 44 percent of America's coal comes from Wyoming and Montana; West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania combined produce less than 20 percent. And make no mistake—in America, coal is still king: 45 percent of our electricity comes from the steam of burning coal pushing generator turbines.
Yet until about a year ago, the fact that the heart of America's coal-mining industry had shifted hardly raised an eyebrow in some sections of the West. But plans to ship millions of tons of coal across Montana and eventually through Washington and Oregon have recently become the stuff of Congressional action and the daily news.
Obscured by the hand-wringing over the immediate effects of coal exports, however, is the wider story—a veritable drama of duplicitous billionaires and government deals, with the very viability of the American coal industry hanging in the balance.
Clint McRae feels sold out. Even if he wasn't standing in full cowboy regalia on the sixth floor of the Washington State Convention Center, McRae would cut a striking figure. His father, Wally McRae, is a well-known cowboy poet in the Rocky Mountain region, and Clint possesses the same performer's gravitas, though he stays away from verse himself. He's also enormous, bred from folk who'd made their living contending with Angus cattle.
McRae and other ranchers from southeastern Montana have been fighting coal companies for years, but this was the first time he'd had to catch a red-eye flight to Seattle to enter the ring. At the convention center, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington Department of Ecology are hearing out proponents and opponents of a proposed coal-export terminal north of Bellingham, he stands calmly like a bull as people in color-coordinated T-shirts reading "NO COAL" and "JOBS NOW" bustle around him.
McRae is downtown because before the first lump of coal reaches Puget Sound, it will likely pass through his ranch on a rail line that is still but a steely glimmer in the coal industry's eye.
The Tongue River Railroad is an idea that has cropped up time and again over the years—as McRae puts it, "Every time we think about putting up new cattle fencing, they start talking about putting in that rail." That a railroad company could condemn a strip of his ranch to ship coal that isn't even going to keep American lights on is especially galling to him. "When we heard they were going to be shipping to China, we were like, what the hell?" McRae says.
But all that doesn't get to why he feels sold out. One must go back to the first Clinton administration—or maybe even to Frank Mars' founding of his candy empire in Tacoma—to understand that grudge.
In 1989, the Canadian mining company Noranda announced its plan to develop the New World gold mine near Cooke City, Mont. Cooke City is just as deserted as Ashland, but benefits from a noteworthy neighbor, Yellowstone National Park, which sits a little south of the tiny burg. When news of the plan got out, the national media seized on the imagery of America's first national park being despoiled by a Canadian conglomerate's gold mine, and it fast became the cause du jour of armchair environmentalists around the world. The United Nations declared Yellowstone "endangered," and speaking to national media became a pastime in Cooke City.
The plan was dramatically averted when the Clinton administration stepped in and spent $22.5 million to buy up the mining claims. President Clinton himself helicoptered into the area to sign the papers and get his photo taken.
But a less-reported aspect of the deal lit a fuse that is still burning: The federal government also granted the state of Montana the Otter Creek coal tracts in far-off Powder River County to make up for the lost revenue it would have earned from the gold mine. The deal all but ensured that a coal mine would be coming to McRae's backyard.
"They should have had the guts to just say no to that mining company," McRae bellows over the convention center din.
Still, Otter Creek coal hasn't been touched since, which gets us to the candy mogul.
Until now, any mining in that corner of the Powder River Basin has been staved off, thanks largely to the efforts of Forrest Mars Jr. He owns a Montana ranch in the Powder River Basin, situated squarely between the coal tracts and Wyoming, where mining companies would have traditionally shipped the coal before its ultimate destination, Midwest power plants. Using a tiny slice of the $18 billion he'd earned from America's love of Twix and Three Musketeers bars, Mars helped successfully stall the railroad that would be needed to mine the Otter Creek coal tracts.
But that all changed in 2011, in another twist in what one area rancher called the soap opera of southeast Montana: Mars suddenly informed area environmental groups that he would no longer help fund their legal fights—in fact, he'd bought a third of a stake in the proposed railroad.
Over the coming months, the reason became clear to the baffled clutch of cattle ranchers: The coal would no longer cross Mars' ranch. Instead, it was headed west to Washington.
Five coal-export terminals are now in various stages of development in Oregon and Washington.
One that's garnered significant attention, especially in Seattle, is the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Wash., just north of Bellingham. The export facility, if approved, would be able to handle 48 million to 54 million tons of coal per year, which pencils out to nine full trainloads of coal per day, according to a February 2012 study conducted by Gibson Traffic Consultants. That would mean 18 more trains through Seattle each day, presuming that cars emptied in Cherry Point would head back to Wyoming and Montana. Another study, commissioned by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, estimates that gates at railroad crossings citywide would be down an extra 96 minutes every day.
The other four export terminals proposed for the Pacific Northwest would be at the Ports of Coos Bay, St. Helens and Morrow in Oregon and the Port of Longview in Washington. Meanwhile, British Columbia has three coal-export terminals in operation: Neptune and Westshore near the border, and Ridley Terminal just south of Alaska.
Proponents of coal exports warn that if Washington and Oregon pass on the proposed ports, the business will go to Canada instead. That may be, but all indications are that King Coal is willing to fight for an American right of way first: In September, the industry-backed Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports spent $866,000 in Oregon and Washington on TV spots lauding the benefits of building coal-export terminals, according to the liberal news site ThinkProgress.
"What I'm hearing from industry heads is that they have a relationship with American shippers," says Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming's School of Energy Resources. "They'd prefer to keep working with them if they can."
In the American conscience, coal is still an Appalachian concern. That's where miners' wives clutch handkerchiefs on the nightly news awaiting word of coal mine collapses, and where Robert F. Kennedy Jr. gets his boots dirty fighting mountaintop-removal mining.
No doubt, coal is still a major industry in West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. But the 1970s weren't kind to eastern U.S. coal. That's because the Clean Air Act of 1970 put stringent controls on how much sulfur coal-fired power plants could emit. Up to then, Wyoming coal hadn't been attractive to utilities, since it didn't burn particularly hot. But it also had low sulfur content, quickly making it the preferred source of cheap energy.
In many ways, the Decker Mine on the Montana/Wyoming border tells the story of coal in America. As Wyoming coal rose to prominence in the 1970s, so did the Decker, named for the tiny Montana town nearby. It became one of the country's biggest surface coal mines, producing 10 million tons a year. But recently, being a microcosm of the coal industry meant layoff announcements just weeks before Thanksgiving.
In November, the Decker's co-owners, Cloud Peak Energy and Ambre Energy, announced plans to lay off 75 of its 160 workers. The town of Decker is so close to Wyoming that its kids are sent to school across the border to Sheridan. Dave Kinskey, Sheridan's Harvard-educated mayor, says the city is hardened to the booms and busts that come with mining. The recession had also stung the city's economy. "The mood already was really somber," Kinskey says, "and that made it all the more so."
Kinskey could be described as an economic-development agnostic: He doesn't revere coal any more than he does yoga studios or wind farms, as long as it brings jobs to Sheridan. From his high plains perch in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, he thinks America could use a little more of that kind of pragmatism. "I tell people, if we want energy, somebody's going to have to get dirty, whether it's mining coal or a guy drilling a well or a guy making steel for a wind turbine," he says by phone.
But he's also not waiting for coal to come back for his town's fortunes to return, with good reason.
This time last year, the Sierra Club celebrated the announcement that the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants in Chicago had been slated for retirement, bringing the number of shuttered U.S. coal-fired plants to 100. Dozens more closings have since been announced. With a lack of new plants opening, Wyoming saw coal production drop 8.7 percent in 2011 from the prior year. Another proposed rail line, from the Powder River Basin to South Dakota, was mothballed late last year due to subpar demand.
One reason for the decreased domestic demand for coal is the down economy, which has reduced electricity use across the board. But some major economic forces bear down specifically on coal.
Northam, whose school proudly displays the logos of major mining and drilling companies as "partners," says America's piecemeal regulation of the coal industry and the specter of a carbon tax or other CO2 regulation has a lot to do with the U.S. coal industry's woes. But he says an equal foe is natural gas. Before Matt Damon's Promised Land made fracking a topic of Hollywood buzz, it was creating hell for coal companies by driving down the price of natural gas. Energy utilities have been opening natural gas-fired power plants instead of coal-fired ones. In a strange way, environmentalists and fracking unwittingly partnered to deal the coal industry a serious blow.
NPR even declared earlier this month that coal had lost its crown as America's energy king, usurped by natural gas. No one will argue that point in five years when, the government's Energy Information Administration says, 27 gigawatts of coal-fired power will be retired from the nation's grid—an 8.5 percent drop from 2011 levels.
Even three years ago, coal companies were fairly muted in their excitement about shipping their wares to another continent. In 2009, Arch Coal, which now has mining rights to millions of tons of coal in Montana's Otter Creek area, would only go as far as to say that there was "growing interest" in coal exports on the West Coast. But by 2011, Arch said it intended to double its seaborne coal exports by 2020, most of which will go to Asia.
Of course, that has as much to do with Asian demand as with the lack thereof in America. Most notable in this regard is China, which contains a fifth of the world's proven coal reserves, yet in 2009 became a net importer of coal. By 2010, China was consuming nearly half the world's coal as it continued to ramp up its blisteringly fast industrialization. But U.S. coal companies have been missing out on that party. Consider: While the U.S. produces three times the amount of coal Indonesia does, Indonesia exports three times as much as the U.S.
Enter the new route through Montana to Washington and Oregon.
"I just don't see the U.S. as being a source of new demand for coal," says Adele Morris, a Brookings Institution fellow and the policy director for the Climate and Energy Economics Project. "It just doesn't look like a booming industry ... You guys are bearing the brunt of this trend."
Speaking of a recent coal-industry confab in Wyoming, Northam says exports were on everyone's mind. "Nobody at the meeting thought the coal industry would disappear, but they are facing some years of hard times if international markets don't open up for them."
At the Decker Mine, 75 miners are still facing the prospect of losing their jobs, but in December the owners dangled the possibility of bringing them back on, with one catch: They'll need to send 5.5 million tons of coal to South Korea annually via the Pacific Northwest's Columbia River Basin.
Otter Creek, Decker, Longview, Bellingham: Through connecting rail lines, these locations and others in coal country and along the Washington and Oregon coasts could see 175 million tons of coal exported by 2022, based on permitting requests analyzed by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott's office. By contrast, in 2011, Oregon and Washington exported just 5.9 million tons of coal.
The overarching environmental concern with shipping more coal to Asia is carbon emissions: The 1.2 billion tons of coal that could be extracted from the Otter Creek tracts alone would produce 3.12 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Yet a fairly unexamined issue—coal dust—has become the rallying point for coal-export opposition. As opponents would have it, coal trains will spew black dust across the Montana landscape; downtown Spokane and Sandpoint, Idaho; over the foot of Queen Anne Hill; and into homes in Bellingham—a galvanizing image that has united opponents across a swath of America that's been prone to send climate change skeptics to Congress.
But is it accurate?
Around the world, as coal has become more and more an international commodity, residents and government officials have grappled with contrary reports: some that show increased asthma attacks and bad air along rail corridors, others that seem to show that coal transportation has little impact.
Working against the notion that coal dust is a major issue:
• A study of coal dust along a major rail corridor in Tennyson, Australia, which sees 9 million tons of coal pass through it every year, found that auto emissions were responsible for twice as much particulate matter in the air than coal trains; coal dust was nearly on par with rubber particles thrown off by automobile tires. Taken all together, particulate matter along Tennyson's rail corridor never exceeded the health threshold.
• In Seward, Alaska, which houses a coal-export facility, ambient air studies investigating the impact of coal traffic through town, conducted by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, found that particulate matter never reached even a third of the level that the EPA considers unhealthy.
• Even figures cited by coal-export opponents showing the huge amount of coal that can be lost during rail transit are taken from industry studies that actually indicate how easily coal dust can be controlled. For example, a study of fugitive coal dust in Virginia—cited by the Sierra Club's Coal Dust Fact Sheet—states that spraying coal cars with chemicals called surfactants can reduce coal dust by 95 percent. And rail company BNSF's oft-cited figure that 500 to 2,000 pounds of coal dust can escape a coal car every trip is actually culled from a fact sheet explaining why in 2011 the rail company began to require that "crusting agents" be sprayed on all coal cars.
On the other hand:
• Even if particulate matter stays below EPA standards, it's important to remember that not all dust is alike: Coal is laden with arsenic and other toxic materials. Farmers deal with dust just as coal miners do, yet only one of these professions is associated with black lung.
• Nor is all coal created alike: The Powder River Coals User Group released a study detailing how finely Powder River Basin coal breaks down, meaning it's harder to control its dust than that of coal from other regions such as Virginia.
• And coal dust isn't the only emission to consider: More train cars mean more diesel engines pulling them.
As for the Tennyson study, while it suggests that coal dust hasn't increased particulate matter beyond the amount allowed by government regulations, it clearly shows that more coal traffic has led to more coal dust. In the past decade, that city has seen coal transportation triple as Aussies serve the same Asian markets that the Pacific Northwest would; the study shows that coal dust has also tripled.
"If I lived next to those lines in north Seattle, I would be concerned about coal shipments going from 10 to 30 trains a day," says Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric and environmental chemistry at the University of Washington-Bothell. "Wouldn't you?"
In the past eight months, Jaffe has become a citizen scientist on coal, and with the help of a couple of students attempted last fall to gauge how much coal dust is produced by the trains that now travel through Seattle to Canadian shipping terminals. That study turned up too little data to suggest anything conclusive, Jaffe says. And in general, he adds, it's a difficult issue to understand for the lack of strong data. "There's very little information about coal dust measured in the air along the railroad tracks," he says.
Still, he balks at the suggestion that the coal dustup is contrived. "Do you live near a railroad track?" he asks. "I don't think the concerns are unreasonable; the proof is in the pudding. The burden of proof to show that this is not going to damage the environment is on them."
It's a bitter irony that the largest CO2-producing industry in the United States may find salvation by the sea, considering that oceans are bearing the biggest burden of global climate change. The water that coal barges will float on is now more acidic and warmer than it was 100 years ago—not to mention that there'll be more water, period, due to melting ice caps. Oceans also absorb the enormous amounts of mercury produced by the burning of coal, meaning that pregnant women are now told to avoid tuna.
But on a rare cloudless November day, there was no coal to be seen cutting toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The sun shone brightly in the San Juan Islands, and in Puget Sound sailors harnessed the steady fall breeze as schooners ripped over the choppy waters and enormous barges sat moored outside the Bellingham port.
After Powder River coal rolls away from the billionaire's ranch and through Clint McRae's fenceline, across Montana and through Spokane, past Queen Anne and by Dan Jaffe's students, here's where at least some of it could travel: through a port just north of Bellingham and into the Pacific Ocean. It—and whatever undisclosed "crusting agent" is applied to it to prevent dust—would be burned, the steam created by the reaction of churning turbines to keep Asian factories in operation.
Eventually the barges would return bearing the fruits of that energy: iPhones, toothbrushes, solar panels. The goods would be unloaded onto trains, to be hauled inland through Seattle, perhaps destined for Sheridan, where sacred ground once smoked in the heat of the high desert plains.