Last Friday, a video feed put University of Montana economist Tom Power before a Montana State University Billings conference room full of citizens wary that more Montana and Wyoming coal mining could bring round-the-clock train traffic through downtown Billings. Before that happens, though, the coal companies plotting to tap southeastern Montana's massive deposits must overcome a geographic disadvantage.
"All due apologies to the Billings area," Power said, "but one of the chief disadvantages is that that coal is found literally in the middle of nowhere, at least...when it comes to where the demand for that coal is."
That would be Asia. The international energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie forecasted last week that U.S. coal exports will reach 500 million tons annually by 2030—about five times the current level. Much of it will come from the Powder River Basin, the West Virginia-sized deposit spanning southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, which suggests that the advantages of that coal—its low price and low sulfur content—will overcome its isolation. New train tracks would go a long way toward solving the problem, which explains why BNSF and Arch Coal are trying to build the Tongue River Railroad to reach Montana's Otter Creek coal tracts.
China could use the coal. Its large deposits in Inner Mongolia are "more in the middle of nowhere," Power said. Shipping Powder River Basin coal across the Pacific appears to make sense, economically.
It may not make sense to Montanans waiting at railroad crossings. Power estimates that if two proposed export terminals in Washington state are built, sending 140 million tons of coal across the ocean every year, about 60 coal trains, each more than 100 cars long, would cross Montana every day.
BNSF doubts it. "That's assuming all the facilities get built, they're operating at full capacity year-round because coal demand is that high, BNSF carries every ton of that coal and we route it through Billings," BNSF's Zak Anderson said. "I just don't think that's going to be the case."
Still, coal dust could be a problem. "The benefits of the coal trains go to the coal companies...The costs are coming to the individual citizens that happen to be living in the community, particularly the people who live along the tracks," said Robert Merchant, a Billings pulmonologist.