by Nick Engelfried, University of Montana at Missoula, Missoula, MT
The last few days in Montana must have made Big Coal very, very nervous.
First, around 100 people gathered outside the Montana Capitol on August 13th to protest state decision makers’ support for coal export projects, which would see Montana become an international coal colony so Big Coal can profit while coal trains and mines expose our communities to poisons. We then stormed into the Capitol building itself, dropping off letters for State Land Board members Governor Brian Schweitzer and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.
Then, over the course of a week, 23 activists (myself included) were arrested at the State Capitol protesting coal exports, in one of the largest acts of nonviolent civil disobedience Montana has seen in recent years. As far as anyone I’ve talked to has been able to tell, it’s the biggest climate-related civil disobedience the state has seen, period.
Partly because of increased attention generated by last week’s protests, journalists uncovered the news that Arch Coal last month submitted its application to build the Otter Creek Coal Mine – one of the largest mines in North America. Apparently hoping to avoid public scrutiny, Arch submitted its application in July without even a press release. Last week the application, along with our protest, made front page news in the Great Falls Tribune, not what Arch wanted.
These are just the highlights from an amazing week. During the Coal Export Action in Helena, people concerned about coal exports marched to the office of the state Department of Environmental Quality, staged a die-in outside US Bank (one of Arch Coal’s funders), picketed outside the Montana Coal Council office, and held a series of teach-ins on coal-related issues in the middle of the Capitol rotunda.
Governor Schweitzer was apparently so scared of us that he posted highway patrol officers outside his office doors, to block the entrance. But he needn’t have worried; the Coal Export Action was entirely peaceful, with both police and protesters behaving peacefully and respectfully toward those around them.
If media attention is at least part of the measure of a successful action, the Coal Export Action was very successful. The protests received coverage in every major Montana newspaper, as well as local TV and radio outlets. We even scored national coverage in USA Today. But while media coverage of the coal exports issue is important, the real measure of our success will be the degree to which it helps build a winning movement against coal exports.
We never expected one protest, no matter how impactful, to stop coal exports on its own. The fact is, the coal industry is very, very powerful in Montana. Actually changing the votes of members of Montana’s State Land Board, who will decide whether some of the most important coal projects in Montana move forward, will take a sustained movement and months or years of work.
But today, I feel confident the movement we need has arrived. Over the coming months, groups like the Blue Skies Campaign, which helped organize the Coal Export Action, will be building on the momentum from last week’s protest. We’ll continue pressuring the State Land Board, but we’ll also challenge the other political and corporate powers that give Big Coal such sway in Montana politics.
If we’re successful, then by the time the Land Board makes a final decision on the Otter Creek project, we’ll have weakened Big Coal to the point where it no longer holds such power over politicians. Want to be involved? Check out coalexportaction.org to stay posted.