Coal coaxing

Last week, Gov. Brian Schweitzer traveled to southwestern Washington to woo the Cowlitz County Board of Commissioners, a body that could, surprisingly, stand in the way of the Montana governor's energy ambitions.

"We have 56 counties in the state of Montana, but the most important county to the people of Montana today is Cowlitz County," Schweitzer reportedly said last Wednesday.

That's because Cowlitz County is key to Schweitzer's mission to mine the massive Otter Creek coal tracts south of Miles City and ship the trove off to Asia. Millennium Bulk Logistics proposes to build a coal export terminal near Longview, the first such facility on the Pacific Coast, which would send some 5.7 million tons of Montana and Wyoming coal across the ocean every year.

While the commissioners approved the facility, sending it to the state for further review, a couple dozen protesters greeted Montana's governor, reminding him that public opposition is one of the obstacles that may impede the coal's path.

Another is the courts. Back in Montana, District Court Judge Joe Hagel on Tuesday denied a motion by the state and Arch Coal—the company that paid Montana $86 million last year for the rights to mine Otter Creek—to dismiss a suit brought last year by environmental groups. The Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Information Center argue the state should have taken environmental, economic and public health threats into consideration before leasing 587 million tons of coal to Arch.

"The court said that the project's environmental impacts could implicate our constitutional right," said MEIC program director Anne Hedges. "Montanans have a constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment and environmental review is a critical process that allows citizens to protect that right."

Steve Running, University of Montana professor and Nobel Peace Prize-winning member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, calculates the combustion of Otter Creek coal would result in about 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the life of the mine, 50 times Montana's total current annual emissions. But it would probably be burned in China. The question facing regulators in Washington, and Montana courts, is whether where the coal is burned matters.

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