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That reliance has dragged Cloud Peak into the center of a much more contentious regional debate. The coal industry is increasingly at odds with critics fearful of impacts to small communities stemming from increased exports to Asia. Cloud Peak managed to secure a third of the annual throughput at the Gateway Pacific terminal. The company doesn't expect to begin actually developing its coal reserves on Crow for four or five years, a timeline that coincides with Gateway Pacific's desired start date. When the terminal opens in 2018, Cloud Peak expects to ship more than 15 million tons of coal a year there—a volume of production and export that could result in a massive bump in coal train traffic through Montana, Idaho and Washington.
The Lummi Nation on the Washington coast has been a staunch opponent of Gateway Pacific's development in recent years, with the tribe citing "dramatic and long-lasting impacts on not only the fisheries but the Lummi fishing fleet." Cultural concerns for the Lummi range from historic shellfish harvesting tracts to the presence of a 3,500-year-old village site near the proposed export terminal. Last July, after months of protest, Lummi tribal leaders officially stated their opposition to the terminal in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"If the projects at Cherry Point are constructed and operated there will be impacts on the Lummi treaty rights forever," Tim Ballew II, chair of the Lummi Indian Business Council, wrote in the July 2013 letter. "It is imperative that the Corps carry out its trust responsibilities as they relate to the Lummi Nation and the treaty rights to fish, gather and hunt in the usual and accustomed places."
The Lummi aren't alone. Last month, two Missoula-based coal protest groups—the Blue Skies Campaign and 350-Missoulamet alongside the railroad tracks bisecting Greenough Drive to draw attention to both local impacts and the contribution coal burning has made to climate change. Missoula lies along the path to those West Coast terminals, a fact that has twice prompted the Missoula City Council to request that the Army Corps expand the scope of environmental reviews for West Coast coal terminals to include impacts of increased coal train traffic on the community. The second of those resolutions—a measure passed last fall pertaining specifically to the Millennium terminal—drew criticism from both the pro-mining group Count on Coal Montana and the Crow government. Old Coyote, concerned with the resolution's potential effect on Cloud Peak's plans, went so far as to write a letter to the council.
"For our plans to create jobs and bring new investment to succeed, we must do all we can to see that the construction of new coal export facilities is not impeded unreasonably," Old Coyote wrote last October. "I would respectfully request that you at least remain neutral on this issue and not encourage an [Environmental Impact Statement] process that would obstruct important economic opportunities for the Crow Tribe and the state of Montana."
The Otter Creek parallel
Vocal opposition to Cloud Peak's Big Metal project doesn't appear to have taken root on the Crow reservation. The loudest critics of the company's plans reside hundreds of miles away, while on Crow the most common talking points come from Old Coyote and other politicians in the form of jobs, economic stimulus and the bonus of educational opportunities for students. The Sierra Club's Mike Scott says he's heard from a few tribal members who have their doubts. Mostly he feels the mine, still in its earliest exploratory stages, isn't enough of a reality for people to risk the backlash for speaking out.
"Over the last 30 years, companies have bored holes all over for projects that fell apart," Scott says. "People have a lot to worry about. They might not waste time on this until they know it's going somewhere."
That relative silence seems odd when compared to another proposed mining project in southeastern Montana. Arch Coal's push to strip mine the 18,000-acre Otter Creek site has resulted in legal challenges, rallies and even protester arrests over the past four years. Politicians have rushed to support the proposal, with former Gov. Brian Schweitzer famously touting the economic benefits of development at Otter Creek as "the biggest, fastest horse in the state." Arch Coal intends to access an estimated 1.4 billion tons of coal on state land—the amount Cloud Peak has secured in its agreement with the Crow tribe.
The concerns voiced by ranchers over the Otter Creek proposal differ radically from those raised by coal critics in Missoula and beyond. Arch Coal owns a third of the stake in the Millennium terminal, with eyes on Asian coal markets, and the plan for Otter Creek includes development of and shipping along the proposed Tongue River Railroad. Among the Northern Plains Resource Council's long list of criticisms over the rail line is the position that it will "make ranching and farming more difficult and expensive, will split ranchland in half separating fields from the [Tongue] river, and will shift the liability of train crossings to the landowner." Numerous ranchers have echoed those fears since 2011.
"I think the reality is that while people do want economic development, they've all seen boom and bust happen already," Scott says. "They get this, they know what it is. They know that very few people get rich and everybody else gets stuck with the bill, and they don't think it's worth it."
Proximity to North Dakota's Bakken oil boom certainly hasn't helped. Everyone knows someone who worked in the patch for a few weeks, Scott says, only to quit when the truth about crime, pollution and inadequate infrastructure became evident. "They don't want their communities to become Williston," he adds.
Cloud Peak has perhaps sidestepped similar backlash thanks to its apparent political acumen. The company established a strong base early on with formation of a political action committee in 2010, and campaign contributions trickled out from Cloud Peak to political candidates in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Cloud Peak began lobbying Congress as well, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on issues ranging from Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases to the National Environmental Protection Act process for proposed export terminals. The company has relied on a list of revolving door lobbyists with strong ties in the West; from 2011 to 2013, that list included former Montana Republican Party Executive Director Mark Baker, who also worked as a legislative director for Sen. Conrad Burns and as chief of staff to Rep. Rick Hill.
According to data from the Sunlight Foundation, the company donated $16,000 to former Rep. Denny Rehberg between 2010 and 2012, including $10,000 to support his bid for U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Jon Tester. Tester and recently retired Sen. Max Baucus have also received campaign contributions from Cloud Peak in the past$2,000 and $5,000 total, respectively—but not nearly in the amounts that have poured into Republican coffers.
In the 2014 election cycle, Republican Rep. Daines has replaced Rehberg as the biggest recepient of Cloud Peak money. Cloud Peak contributed $10,000 to Daines' U.S. Senate race in the past year alone—the most to any single candidate nationwide. The donations come on the heels of heavy support for Daines' initial congressional bid. Daines has come out as a strong backer of coal development in the statethough when asked about the donations, his office maintained that Daines has "always been a strong supporter of responsibly developing Montana's energy resources." He trumpeted the signing of Cloud Peak's agreement with the Crow Tribe last year, offering his full support for the project months in advance of the BIA's approval.
"Just this week I met with Chief Old Coyote in Washington, D.C.," Daines wrote in a Jan. 24, 2013, statement. "I am eager to continue a strong relationship with our tribal leaders to help create more jobs in Montana's tribal communities. This agreement marks an ideal beginning to that effort."
Tester extended similar support for the project at the time, with the provision that "implemented properly," the tribe's partnership with Cloud Peak stands to improve the quality of life for its members. Tester announced this spring that he, along with Sen. John Walsh, would push for reauthorization of the Indian Coal Production Tax Credit, a $2.50-per-ton tax break that could stand to benefit Cloud Peak for its future development on Crow. By comparison, Cloud Peak is offering the tribe $0.08 to $0.15 per ton, with an additional 21- to 30-percent payment from coal sales for royalties and production taxes.