Montanans are no strangers to conflict over coal.
It was four decades ago when multinational mining companies began buying coal seams in southeastern Montana, and it sparked debate with ranchers concerned for grazing lands and water. Today ranchers in the region are again worried about expansion of coal operations. Many now have years of experience with the damage the industry does to clean water.
But there’s another important difference today: how much further concerns about coal have spread.
My family and I grow wheat near the Canadian border in northern Montana’s Golden Triangle region. We’ve been farming here since 1947. We’re far from the coal fields, so back in the ’70s when coal company land men were stirring controversy there, it wasn’t something that mattered to us farmers up north. Today it does.
Why? Coal companies’ expansion plans today involve mining in the Powder River Basin, transporting the coal across Montana on open rail cars to proposed new terminals in the Pacific Northwest, and shipping it overseas to China to burn. It’s a plan being driven by the shift in the U.S. from coal to cleaner energy sources.
For many grain growers, the specter of a lot more coal train traffic raises an economic risk. The vast majority of the wheat we grow in the Golden Triangle is sent by rail to West Coast terminals to ship to Asia. For the first time in a long time, demand is up and the price for our wheat is pretty good. We’re going to need more rail access, not less. With land coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program back into production on our farm, for example, we’ll be seeding about 25 percent more acreage.
So what happens if coal companies put another 30-60 trains on the tracks through Montana under their export plans, as is being predicted under some scenarios?
One plausible result is that costs to ship could rise as rail demand rises. And if congestion and track access gets so tight that our grain shipments are delayed, even a little, we risk losing out to competitors from countries like Australia or Argentina that can deliver on time.
The bottom line is that if our grain sits at the elevators, if we lose competitive edge, Montana farmers lose. The coal industry will tell us not to worry, but to gauge how much to trust those assurances we should ask ranchers near Colstrip who were assured that waste ponds with toxic coal ash wouldn’t leak (they did, and still do).
There’s another factor that has broadened concern about coal today: Communities across the country have seen two consecutive years of severe droughts, wildfires, heat, floods and storms that have cost more than $135 billion in federal disaster relief.
Choices about fossil fuels nowadays come at a time when we’re coming to grips with the implications for our climate. They also come in an era where renewable energy can boost local jobs and revenues. Montana has huge wind power potential, and we can do solar and geothermal too. It’s where electricity is going and we should be getting in the game as aggressively as possible.
Sometimes I’ll hear conflict over coal characterized as an “environmental debate.” It’s clearly broader. It’s an economic issue for ranchers concerned about new coal train tracks cutting cattle off from water. It’s an economic issue for wheat growers concerned about shipping in a time-sensitive and competitive market. It’s a safety and health issue for emergency response teams in rail cities and towns concerned about more delays at rail crossings.
As a businessman I think about the issue of a potential ramp-up of coal operations for export in terms of the risks for our family farm. As a grandfather I think about what today’s choices will mean for our younger generations, for my great grandkids, for the land, water and climate they will live with.
Increasingly, we all need to.
Arlo Skari is a wheat farmer in northern Montana, near Chester.