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America is moving away from coal. As we use energy more efficiently (such as with compact fluorescent light bulbs and more building insulation) and use cleaner sources of energy (such as wind power), our demand for coal is declining.

The Empire State Building, for instance, uses 38 percent less energy now than it did a couple of years ago. And the city of Billings’ plans to reduce energy use for its buildings by 25 percent through energy efficiency upgrades.

Clean-energy options

At the same time, clean-energy sources with virtually no pollution are cost-competitive. According to Public Services Commission records, power from the Judith Gap wind farm — even accounting for backup sources like hydro and natural gas to “firm” it when the wind isn’t blowing — is less expensive than power from many coal-fired plants and far less costly than power from new coal-fired plants.

Because demand for coal is waning in this country, Big Coal is looking for markets in Asia and supports development of port facilities in Washington State. Exporting Montana coal to Asia is a bad deal for Montanans for three reasons:

Water and agriculture. We should not sacrifice the long-term prosperity of family farms and ranches for the short-term gain of expanded coal mining. Mining coal destroys streams and aquifers essential to life and livelihood in Montana, threatening the health and productivity of agricultural land and wildlife habitat. Coal mining in Montana has disturbed more than 37,000 acres, but mining companies have completely reclaimed the land and restored the aquifers of only 50 of those acres — or 0.1 percent. Groundwater is critical for ranchers and is unavailable in formerly strip-mined areas. Jobs in coal extraction that last a decade or two come at the expense of jobs for generations of farmers and ranchers.

Industrialized landscape. To move coal from Eastern Montana to the West Coast, new railroads would have to run through pristine parts of Montana. The agricultural Tongue River Valley would be ravaged by a railroad that would dump tons of sediment into the river during construction, make stream access more difficult for anglers, scare away wildlife prized by hunters and break up ranch and farm operations. Large coal companies intend to export up to 140 million tons of coal from the Powder River Basin annually, requiring up to 60 coal trains rumbling through Billings daily. Billings residents are already inconvenienced by trains that cut our community apart, but this volume of train traffic would be crippling.

Global climate change. This subject has become politicized, with some corporate interests pouring in millions of dollars to confuse and deceive the public and politicians. The science is sound, and the empirical evidence continues to mount.

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Don’t ignore science

Those who deny human activities have a role in climate change have either chosen to ignore the science or have fallen victim to the deception campaigns. As a Jan. 9 Gazette article described, politically conservative climate scientists accept the broad scientific consensus on global change and are frustrated many so-called conservative politicians act so recklessly with our future.

Burning coal is not in Montana’s interest, wherever it occurs. We need a transition away from fossil fuels. The consequences of inaction are too great to ignore. Those who want to export coal are passing the buck, letting future generations deal with the consequences.

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Ed Gulick of Billings chairs the Northern Plains Resource Council.

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