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As southeastern Montana residents who will be directly impacted by the Land Board’s decision Monday on leasing Otter Creek coal, we have a real stake in the decision. Most of us make our living from the land, and it is the land — our water, and our agricultural-based economic livelihoods — that will be harmed if this decision is made in haste.

The public has never been allowed to comment on whether leasing these coal tracts is in the best interest of the state. For nearly 20 months, the public has been allowed to comment only on whether the state should get an appraisal of the property, whether the appraisal should be accepted, and now whether the lease language should be accepted. The process is flawed. There has been no discussion of costs — environmental, economic, and social — associated with leasing this coal. Until there is an environmental analysis of the impacts to the land, air, wildlife, surface and underground water resources, the social and cultural resources of the area, and the area’s rural agricultural economy, the idea that leasing Otter Creek coal is beneficial to the state is false, misleading and, we believe, wrong.

Otter Creek coal is high in sodium. Other Montana coal mines supply all the high-sodium coal that can be marketed. Otter Creek will drive them out of business.

 

Cleaner energy demand

 

Otter Creek coal will require transportation. The proposed Tongue River Railroad represents a competitive threat to existing Montana coal producers as it would provide shorter access for higher-value Gillette, Wyo., coal to markets currently served by Montana coal. The state should stay far away from the Tongue River Railroad.

Whether or not you believe in global climate change, it is clear that the burning of coal for energy has been targeted as unacceptable by many throughout the world. The price of coal is at its lowest in years. Markets are not going to rebound, because coal is one of the dirtiest energy sources in the world today. The burning of coal contributes about 40 percent of today’s carbon dioxide emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency has classified carbon dioxide as a potential threat to human health and thus has set in motion the procedure to regulate emissions. Until there is a technologically feasible way to sequester carbon dioxide — and that is years away — Otter Creek coal is best left in the ground.

 

Agricultural tradition

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The Tongue River Valley is one of the last, nearly pristine and intact prairie valleys remaining in the West. The area’s rich soils and clean waters provide the basis for a long tradition of ranching and irrigated agriculture. This area is culturally important to Native American tribes, especially the Northern Cheyenne, whose roots are deep in this land. The area’s forests and valleys provide essential space and critical habitat for wildlife, which provide excellent hunting, fishing, and other recreation.

Our state Constitution and the Montana Environmental Policy Act direct the state to fully study the ramifications of its actions before making a decision on Otter Creek. Previous Montana Supreme Court decisions support our contention that leasing is a major state action that requires prior and full environmental analysis.

The Land Board’s public trust responsibilities for Montana’s schools are not just for today, but even more importantly for the future. The leasing of Otter Creek coal is focused on the past. The Land Board should just say no to leasing this coal.

Nancy Carrel of Birney is a Tongue River Valley landowner and member of Northern Plains Resource Council. Her opinion is endorsed by these other area landowners and NPRC members: Art and Marilynn Hayes, Jeanie Alderson, Terry Punt, Bill Carrel, Alice Orr, Victoria Bales, Stephen and Chris Valentine, Mark Fix, Kelly and Cindy Radue, Clint McRae and Wally McRae.

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