Montanans are gearing up for the latest round in the coal wars, with industry supporters trying to protect jobs while environmentalists seek a shift to renewable energy.
At issue is the Obama administration’s proposal last month to cut by 30 percent nationwide the emissions of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas that many scientists say contributes to climate change. Coal-fired power plants are significant carbon producers and a major piece of Montana’s economy, employing hundreds and supporting Powder River Basin coal mines.
The Environmental Protection Agency is holding a two-day public hearing July 29 and 30 in Denver, one of four nationwide. The agency is also accepting written comment, and both sides are preparing statements.
“What we’re focused on is making sure that people in Montana are aware what the costs are going to be of this rule,” said Chuck Denowh, a spokesman with Count on Coal Montana, an industry coalition.
The stakes are high, particularly for the industry and ratepayers. Coal companies are struggling to compete with low natural gas prices, and they’re running out of ways to find new business. Federal regulations may have rendered the construction of new power plants too costly, and efforts to build Pacific Northwest coal terminals are faced with a lengthy regulatory process and public opposition.
For environmentalists, the proposed new regulations present an opportunity to mobilize supporters and lobby for increased wind, solar and hydropower in Montana.
“This certainly is going to create an environment where other energy-producing industries get an equal seat at the table,” said Mike Scott, Billings organizer for the Sierra Club.
The EPA released its 645-page draft last month to reach the carbon-reduction targets by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. Each state must determine how to reach its own goal, which is determined by how much coal is burned for power generation.
In Montana, industries must reduce carbon emission 21 percent, from 2,245 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity down to 1,771 pounds per megawatt hour. Officials with the administration of Gov. Steve Bullock have vowed to work closely with industry to come up with a Montana-specific plan.
The EPA hopes to finalize the plan by 2015, and states must submit their proposals two years later.
The EPA is holding hearings in Denver, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Pittsburgh. The agency recently extended the hearings to two days because of the large response.
“It is a very high priority for our industry and one of the most significant regulations ever issued by EPA involving the electric power sector,” said Jon Corley, spokesman for Washington, D.C.-based Edison Electric Institute, an industry lobbyist.
About 53 percent of Montana’s power comes from burning coal, helping the state sell the 14th-cheapest power in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
It’s too soon to tell the exact effect and cost of the regulations. Business lobbyists argue power rates will undoubtedly rise, while environmentalists say those costs could be offset by renewable energy.
Officials at PPL Montana said they are still reviewing the proposal.
PPL has 50 percent ownership of Colstrip Units 1 and 2 and a 30 percent stake in Unit 3. It also operates the J.E. Corette facility in Billings.
“What we’re doing is working through comments we’re going to file with EPA, obviously urging flexibility,” PPL spokesman David Hoffman said.
In Montana, coal supports more than 1,600 jobs in mines and power plants, with a total payroll of more than $115 million. The coal industry also pays into a $680 million state-run trust fund that supports economic development in Montana.
Labor groups are watching closely, wary that many of their members are concerned about climate change but want solutions that don’t kill industrial jobs.
“What we need (are) partners in the middle to find a solution that protects our jobs, protects our tax base and protects the environment,” said Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor affiliate.
Labor officials have held eight meetings statewide about the proposed regulations, where they heard a range of views.
“Was there concern? Yes. But I can tell you at the end of these meetings… they said the labor movements needs to be engaged in this issue. And that’s what we need to do,” said Ekblad.
That means talking with the business and environmental communities, along with Gov. Steve Bullock’s administration and state lawmakers, Ekblad said. Labor will likely take a position on the issue when specific legislation is introduced, he said.
“I would argue that the mainstream is in the middle,” he said.
A more unified industry
Coal supporters are hoping for more success than what they’ve had in Washington state, where two proposed coal docks have run into heavy public opposition and face a lengthy environmental review.
An executive from Millennium Bulk Terminals, which has proposed building a terminal in Longview, Wash., said during a Billings energy conference in April that industry supporters need to do a better job explaining the importance of coal jobs to the regional economy.
Montana coal officials said they heard the message and are reaching out to business-friendly groups through newsletters, social media and other methods.
“It’s really hard because the environmental groups are extremely well organized... It’s hard to fight against that,” said Count on Coal Montana’s Denowh.
Industry supporters say they are lobbying for carbon capture and sequestration to preserve coal jobs. This is a technique where carbon is captured at the coal plant and injected and stored underground at various off-site locations. U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., proposed last week a plan to build 10 of these projects nationwide.
The technique has already been used in seven projects nationwide, including the $85 million Northern Montana Kevin Dome project in Toole County. While sequestration has been shown to reduce emissions, critics worry that CO2 could leak through the soil and pipes and into the air.
Business backers said regulators need to be careful how the proposed regulations affect the energy sector overall.
“That’s where the jobs and the wealth is being created right now. And here we have these rules that could throw a wrench in it,” said Glenn Oppel of the Montana Chamber of Commerce.
Green groups going grass-roots
Environmentalists say they are planning a grass-roots response to the EPA proposal. San Francisco-based Sierra Club, one of the nation’s largest conservation groups, is organizing car pools to the EPA hearings later this month, including the one in Denver.
It’s a prime time to raise awareness about climate change, and organizers said they’ll be urging members to contact elected officials.
“We don‘t want your average citizen to get overshadowed by a couple of industries in Montana. We want to make sure those voices get heard,” Scott of the Sierra Club’s Billings office said.
Mark Fix, a Miles City-area rancher, will be one of those voices at the Denver EPA hearing.
Fix, former chairman of Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council, is one of the most vocal opponents of the Tongue River Railroad, a proposed 42-mile line that would carry coal trains from Colstrip to Ashland and run through his ranch.
While he got involved because of what’s happening in his own backyard, Fix said he remains engaged because he’s concerned about global climate change.
As a rancher, the weather is always on Fix’s mind, from spring ice jams in streams that threaten livestock, to dry summers that raise wildfire dangers.
“The weather affects everything we do. If we don’t get enough rain, our crops don’t grow… Everything that happens, one way or another, affects us,” he said.