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Growing market shares for natural gas and renewable energies, increased energy efficiency, a "less energy intensive" economy and fickle world markets are some of the many factors contributing to a decreasing demand for coal energy in America, according to a presentation delivered Saturday afternoon in Billings by Seth Feaster, a data analyst for the Cleveland-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. 

Feaster spoke as part of a Northern Plains Resource Council panel of speakers discussing coal and the Montana coal community of Colstrip. The Billings-based environmentalist group's series of speakers included Rosebud Protective Association member Brad Sauer, Northern Plains researcher Kate French, and Colstrip power plant control room operator and International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local 1638 union registrar Ted Stimac. 

For communities affected by declining coal revenue, Feaster said concerns should be focused less on bankruptcy and more toward the "drip-drip-drip" of a process he called "financial extraction."

Corporate behavior visible during financial extraction, per Feaster's description, can include companies doing things like loading themselves with debt to redistribute to investors before bankruptcy, cutting worker benefits, and displaying a declining interest in supporting communities or the health of their landscape. During a question and answer session afterwards, Feaster described how preparing for transitions ahead of closures is one way to "remove that fear (of the unknown) as a weapon companies can hold over communities and workers." 

Companies providing worker benefits enter into a social contract with their workers, Feaster said.

"And I think one of the things that bothers me most as an observer of this process is how companies at the end of that period of time suddenly take that social contract and rip it up. And that is devastating for communities," Feaster said.

Stimac, the final speaker of the event, drew a standing ovation by the close of his brief speech in which he spoke about the emotional burden of the struggling coal economy on coal workers and advocated for Talen Energy to use soil excavation remediation methods in cleaning their coal ash ponds, as opposed to capping them. Those jobs, if guaranteed to local workers, could help soften the economic blow on individuals and families, Stimac said.

Contaminated water from the ash ponds is estimated to be seeping into groundwater at a rate of 200 million gallons a year. Water for the Colstrip community is provided by a pipeline connected to the Yellowstone River.  

Earlier, Northern Plains Resource Council researcher Kate French delivered a presentation on a study co-sponsored by the IBEW Local 1638 and Northern Plains Resource Council that shows excavation techniques are more effective for both job production and remediation.

In his speech, Stimac drew parallels between the impending closure of Colstrip Units 1 and 2 in 2022, the uncertainty about Units 3 and 4, and the 1982 felling of the Anaconda Company smelter stack in his hometown of Great Falls. 

"I chose not to go watch. The promised spectacle couldn't make up for the feeling of loss to the community," Stimac said. "I wish people outside the coal industry knew that we take pride in our community and our work. It can be dangerous. It's difficult and long hours but we do it not only to put food on the table but to power our country. In Colstrip, there's a lot of pride around the coal industry, but it is obvious that change has come whether we like it or not." 

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Night Reporter

General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.