Uprising in Montana: Activists Take a Stand Against Coal Exports
It wasn’t as big as we’d hoped. These things never are, until, well, they are.
It didn’t really matter though: Hundreds converged from across the country for the Coal Export Action and 23 participated in five days of civil disobedience in protest of the coal industry’s latest scheme to save itself from obsolescence. The message we sent reverberated around the state capitol here in Helena, MT: We will not sit idly by while King Coal attempts to export coal from the Powder River Basin through port towns in Oregon and Washington to Asian energy markets.
Every day, people sat-in in the middle of the Montana statehouse until it closed at 6 pm. At 5:30, the nervous facilities manager, Marv Eicholtz, would awkwardly give the larger group the first dispersal order. At 5:50, he’d issue a second one with Helena policemen standing in the background. At 6 pm, Eicholtz would approach and say, “I’m giving you the third and final dispersal warning. Anyone refusing to leave the building will be turned over to the Helena Police Dept.” Those not risking arrested would circle around those sitting in and ask them why we were going to jail, sing civil rights songs, or chant. They’d then quickly leave and wait outside as the police brought the arrestees out to idling sheriff’s vans and took them to the Lewis and Clark county jail.
Every day for five days this routine happened over and over. By the end of the week, 23 had been arrested. Most of the arrestees were from Montana, Oregon and Washington—all states expected to be impacted by coal exports, coal trains and expanded western coal mining.
On the fourth day, I joined the sit-in with my friends Griff (an Episcopal minister from Portland), Jasmine and Gloria (who are Rising Tide organizers in Portland and Chicago, respectively), and younger activists Mia and Kai’l (both from Portland). Every day was a theme day, and on our day it was “climate change day.” Quite fitting since everyone arrested that day had worked on climate campaigns from Appalachia to the South Side of Chicago to Oregon port towns at one time or another. All six of us opted not to pay the $340 bond and be bailed out. We spent the night in the Lewis and Clark county lock up in general population, a small sacrifice for making a statement against coal exports.
The Coal Export Action was initiated and led by grassroots, youth, and student organizers from Montana, Oregon, and Washington, most of them affiliated with the Blue Skies Campaign and the Cascade Climate Network. It was also supported by a number of environmental and climate groups like Rainforest Action Network, 350.org, and Rising Tide North America. It was inspired by the Tar Sands Action called for by writer Bill McKibben at the White House in 2011, which resulted in over 1,200 arrests. Some of the 23 arrested in Helena last week were also participants in the actions at the White House.
For months, we’d organized, done outreach, and built a buzz calling on people from the coastal and mountain regions of the West to join the Coal Export Action. It was eight days of rolling sit-ins and protests at the Montana statehouse designed to pressure the state’s land board to deny Arch Coal’s permit application to mine Otter Creek and create a new source of greenhouse gas emissions.
While not the same size as the Tar Sands Action, the Coal Exports Action was not lacking in spirit. Noted Montana environmental writer and poet Rick Bass sat-in and was arrested on the first day with six others. On the second day, three Montana men sat in and were arrested. On the third day, a group of women called “Montana Women For” led a ladies-only occupation of the capitol rotunda. On the fourth day, our climate crew was arrested. On the last day, three men were taken away.
More importantly, the Coal Export Action turned a spark of grassroots climate activism in the Northwest into a blaze. “We are here to demonstrate mass citizen opposition to big coal corporations’ dirty plan to export millions of tons of Powder River basin coal each year to the international energy market,” said Lowell Chandler, a construction worker and volunteer with the Blue Skies Campaign. “We’re here to pressure the state Land Board to stand with us against these massive coal export proposals.”
Every day the Coal Export Action transformed the Montana statehouse into participatory space where people from around the country held teach-ins and strategized the next steps for coal export campaigns in the West. A No Coal Exports grassroots coalition is coming out of Helena fired up and ready to fight.
The Coal Industry is Dying
In the middle of the week, Arch Coal issued a press release stating that they’d officially applied for the permit to strip mine Otter Creek. Otter Creek is a tract of land in southeast Montana sitting between two national forests and on top of over a billion tons of coal. The permit spreads over 7,639 acres of state, federal and private land. Arch paid the state of Montana $86 million for the coal and will also build new rail lines to get the coal transported out.
It became obvious the tension we’d hoped to create was working. The day after Arch’s announcement, we picketed the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality’s offices and began a dialogue with the agency’s amiable director, Richard Opper. He was obviously sympathetic but also said he had to abide by state laws and regulations.
The coal industry is dying. Coal has peaked in Appalachia. Environmental regulation, litigation, community-led campaigns, and the price of natural gas have all drastically reduced the amount of electricity generated by coal nationally, from 50% to 35%. The shrinking demand has led to large layoffs and fading quarterly profits for the biggest coal companies.
Now the coal industry is moving into an endgame scenario and coal exports are its last hope. Coal reserves in the Powder River Basin area of Montana and Wyoming are still abundant and the industry is hoping to export coal through proposed mega-ports on the Oregon and Washington coast to international energy markets in China and India.
At the end of the Coal Export Action, I traveled to Missoula to unwind for a few days. On one of those days I took a six-mile hike into the Bitterroot Wilderness. Sharing a name with Montana’s state flower, the Bitteroot is populated with majestic trees, diverse wildlife and flowing waterways. Along the trails I encountered fellow hikers, fisherman, and horse packers. It was an opportunity to reconnect, if only for a moment, with the forests and mountains I’d spent a night in jail to preserve.
In the late 1990’s and the early part of the last decade, Wild Rockies Earth First! fought fierce campaigns in the Bitterroot against timber sales initiated by the forest service and logging companies. Many of these activists spent weeks and months in Montana jails for using escalated tactics like blockades and tree-sits to protect thousands of acres of Montana forests. As the anti-coal and climate movements resist fossil fuels with harder and harder campaigns and actions, it’s best to remember that the more we escalate, the more we will sacrifice.