Finding King Coal’s Weak Spot

This piece is cross-posted from Coalexportaction.org

 If there’s one thing the climate movement learned from the fight against the tar sands, it’s that the fossil fuel industrial complex has weak spots that can be turned into pressure points for effective campaigns.  From direct actions to stop the “heavy hauls,” to mass action against Keystone XL, the freedom-from-tar sands movement has applied pressure in places where Big Oil is constrained by geography or the political process.

Though they haven’t won every time, activists fighting the tar sands (including good friends of mine) have cost Big Oil millions, derailed or delayed key parts of the tar sands project, and given us a real chance at defeating one of the worst planetary disasters in history.  It’s time for the Freedom From Coal movement to do the same thing.

When it comes to coal, our most effective pressure points aren’t trucks or pipelines, but they are no less real.  Coal barons dream of turning North America’s biggest coal deposit, the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, into an industrial mining zone.  Just as Big Oil needs the Keystone XL pipeline to transport tar sands crude to the US, coal industry leaders are counting on a key project to realize their plans.  That project is the Otter Creek mine.

Help stop King Coal’s anchor project: join the Coal Export Action this summer! 

For those who don’t know, Otter Creek is located just east of the Tongue River, south of Miles City, Montana.  Arch Coal executives want to turn Otter Creek into one of the continent’s biggest coal mines, but that’s just the beginning.  Otter Creek is considered an “anchor project,” which would facilitate the transformation of vast additional areas into a mining zone.

Why is Otter Creek so special?  It provides official justification for building the Tongue River Railroad, which is fiercely opposed by ranchers whose land would be transected.  Without this railroad, coal barons have no way to transport the huge quantities of coal they want to move from the Powder River Basin, to the international export market via the West Coast.

Otter Creek is also special because, unlike most coal tracts in Montana, it is on state land.  That means we don’t have to appeal to Obama’s BLM or to private landowners to stop the project.  The most important decision makers are members of the Montana State Land Board: five elected officials who are, in theory, accountable to Montana citizens. Despite strong public opposition, the Land Board voted once to grant Arch Coal a lease over Otter Creek.  The Board now has a chance to revisit that disastrous decision.

Last month, a court ruled the Land Board retains authority to say “no” to coal mining at Otter Creek.  Of course, as things stand now, there’s almost no chance the Board will do that.  Three out of the five members have made it clear they’re willing to see the land mined.

That’s why, this August, hundreds of Montanans will converge in the state capital for a full week of mass direct action, to create a crisis of morality for members of the Land Board.  Faced with such a large number of their constituents, many of whom are willing to risk arrest to convey the seriousness of the issue at hand, we hope the Land Board will choose to take up Otter Creek again at their August 20th meeting, and withdraw permission for Arch executives to pillage Montana’s land, water, and climate.

If members of the Land Board won’t decide to re-visit Otter Creek on their own, we’re happy to bring it up ourselves at their August 20th meeting.  And if they attempt to ignore us, well…there are creative, non-violent, and dignified ways that, with enough people, you can make sure an issue at a public meeting can’t easily be dismissed.

Though the call for the Coal Export Action came from Montana, we invite all those impacted by expanding coal projects – from existing coal fields in Wyoming to port towns in Oregon and Washington – to join us in Helena and stand in solidarity with ranchers, working class communities, and students who stand to lose most if the Otter Creek mine moves forward.  This is a fight Montana probably can’t win on our own; we need a convergence of regional movements to keep this coal in the ground.

Help build the mass movement that will keep Powder River Basin coal in the ground, protecting our region from coal mining, transport, and climate change.  It’s time to reclaim our power of self-determination for our communities.  Join the Coal Export Action today.


About Nick


Nick is a freelance writer, climate activist, and a graduate student at the University of Montana. He got his start in activism by helping to establish a new campus recycling system at Portland Community College; since then he has organized to stop fossil fuel projects and open up space for clean energy in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Nick is currently working with activists throughout the Greater Northwest to protect Northwest communities from coal export projects. When not in school or organizing for a clean energy future, he can be found hiking in the natural areas around Missoula, bird watching, or writing a novel.

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