Several times a day, long trainloads of coal trundle through Missoula to power plants in Washington.
Those routine runs generate lots of electricity for homes and lots of consternation for politicians and scientists concerned about the trade-offs. In the short term, coal's convenience and low price make it a simple answer to the nation's energy needs. But its pollution, damage to water supplies and impact on global climate may produce a long-term cost we're unable to afford.
"Two years ago, the United States was on the verge of adopting a comprehensive climate bill," said Michael Gerrard, a Columbia Law School climate change expert who visited Missoula last week. "That fell apart, and we now have at best paralysis and at worst an effort to move backward. All this is happening in the face of a stream of new scientific evidence showing the serious worsening of climate problems. And the U.S. is now standing virtually alone in the world among major countries listening to voices that deny the reality of climate change."
Burning coal and natural gas produces carbon dioxide, among other pollutants. Tiny changes in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere have triggered increases in overall planetary temperatures and changes in the acidity of the ocean that can cause giant disruptions in the food chain.
Putting a price on carbon greenhouse gases would encourage development of cleaner, more efficient power sources, Gerrard said. Ignoring the issue stalls that development.
"Two years ago, the electric utility industry was ready to make major investments to develop conservation strategies," Gerrard said. "That's slowed considerably because no one knows what the requirements would be. If there's not a price on carbon, if we're free to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, if that social cost isn't reflected in the cost of doing business, it's impossible to stop."
Montana's coal reserves rank first in the nation, with 119 billion tons, according to the Montana Coal Council. The state ranked fifth for production in 2009, behind Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. While Wyoming has barely half Montana's reserves, it mined 431.1 million tons of coal in 2009, compared to Montana's output of 39.5 million tons.
The coal industry employs 1,218 people with a $87.6 million payroll in Montana, according to the group's records.
The 2010 retail price for coal was $9.78 a ton. On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management rejected an offer by Signal Peak Energy to pay 15 cents a ton for 35.5 million tons near its Bull Mountain mine in eastern Montana.
While carbon caps appear dead in the current Congress, some smaller measures are afoot. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., joined Democratic Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse on Wednesday to introduce the Safeguarding America's Future and Environmental Act.
The bill would make public land managers in different agencies share their climate change-related knowledge and projects. The goal is more cooperation in protecting the nation's natural resources from the effects of global warming.
It would also create a National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center and a Science Advisory Board to ensure land policies are supported by the most up-to-date climate research. Those advisers would also work with state and local agencies, tribal governments and private landowners.
"Senator Whitehouse and I represent very different states, but we both recognize how profoundly climate change is affecting our environment and our infrastructure, and the jobs that depend on them," Baucus said in an email to the Missoulian. "The SAFE Act ... will safeguard Montana's blue-ribbon trout streams, improve our response to flooding and wildfires, and protect our outdoor heritage."
National Parks Conservation Association landscape conservation manager Bart Melton said the legislation would save money.
"It's about how we deal with managing federal lands in a climate of limited funding," Melton said. "For example, you have multiple agencies doing research in watersheds. You need to make sure they're talking in the future. Then you can look for more sustainable solutions to forestry problems. This starts that process."
Local and state agencies are already busy addressing climate change.
Bozeman's City Council is forming volunteer groups to help hit its goal of reducing the city's carbon dioxide emissions from 13 metric tons to 10 metric tons per person by 2020. In Washington, state foresters and land managers have formed a task force to confront an expected forest health epidemic affecting 2.8 million acres on the eastern edge of the state. Washington State Forester Aaron Everett told the Spokesman Review newspaper the problem was compounded by the warming climate.
In Missoula, Mayor John Engen's Advisory Group on Climate Change and Sustainability has put more than a dozen volunteers to work writing a climate action plan.
"We've made great progress," city spokeswoman Ginny Merriam said. "We should have the draft ready in December."
But Baucus' bill was also introduced in virtually identical form in 2009, where it failed to win approval.
For observers like Gerrard, that decision-making delay is about to have extreme consequences. He recently returned from the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands, where he said rising water levels are about to inundate communities there.
"We're having a shortage of national scientific discourse," Gerrard said. "Climate change is founded on scientific conclusions. You can also say that economics, or morality, or the obligations of one generation to another - all of those come into play. But it's all founded on science."