HELENA — Protesters opposed to coal development in Montana occupied the state Capitol Monday, planning a week-long event that aims to convince elected officials to block future development leases.
The protesters, led by a Missoula group called the Blue Skies Campaign, billed the "Coal Export Action sit-in" as a peaceful gathering. They hope to convince the Montana Land Board to reject development of coal in eastern Montana, or at a minimum delay action on the issue while more studies are undertaken.
"We are hoping that they stay neutral until they know what the risks are," said spokesman Lowell Chandler.
The Blue Skies group was at the Land Board meeting earlier this month unsuccessfully opposing an expansion of the Bull Mountain Mine. The board is now taking public comment on the $3.5 million bid received from Signal Peak Energy to lease more state coal at the mine site.
The land board is chaired by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and includes Attorney General Steve Bullock and other statewide elected officials.
The protest this week asks the state to stop planned development of Otter Creek coal, Chandler said.
St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc. has paid $159 million to the state and Great Northern Properties to lease the Otter Creek coal tracts, located near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The proposal has been fought by anti-coal groups and some local landowners who say it would industrialize a rural part of the state and help accelerate climate change.
The state lease sale was approved in 2010 by the Montana Land Board, despite opposition from protesters who disrupted the meeting.
Chandler said his group has volunteers scheduled to take shifts throughout the week. About two dozen were sitting in the Capitol's second-floor Rotunda area on Monday afternoon.
Each evening, volunteers will be willing to face arrest if police force them out of the Capitol when it closes, Chandler said. On Monday night, Helena police escorted seven protesters from the building in handcuffs.
Schweitzer, a Democrat who has been a big proponent of coal development in eastern Montana, was not expected to speak with the protesters.
"He has no plans to meet with the coal protesters this week while they are in Helena, but he has heard their concerns at the land board meetings," said spokeswoman Sarah Elliott.
Last summer, dozens of protesters opposed to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S occupied the governor's offices for more than four hours and interrupted their meeting with him by playing old-time tunes on a piano and dancing on an historic conference table after he refused to renounce his support for the project.