This post is cross-published from the Coal Export Action. To help stop destructive coal mining in Montana this summer, sign up here.
What do you get when the construction industry finances an “unbiased” report on the economic impacts of coal mining, and the report author goes on to completely ignore how land degradation, aquifer depletion, and climate change might negatively impact the economy?
You’d expect such an industry-sponsored study to over-estimate the economic benefits of letting Big Coal have its way. What you might not expect, is for it to contain findings that blatantly contradict the authors’ own claim that opening a giant coal mine will positively impact nearby communities. Yet that’s exactly what a recent report on “The Impact of Otter Creek Coal Development on the Montana Economy” does.
The report in question, financed by the Montana Contractors Association, and authored by Patrick M. Barkey and Paul E. Polzin of the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, recently made headlines in the Montana news. Claims made in the report are about what you’d expect from an industry-sponsored study: coal mining will create thousands of jobs, generate millions in tax revenue, and lead its supporters down the one true path to Paradise.
But as I read the report, I was astonished by both its cavalier disregard for basic information, and its obvious self-contradictions.
For one thing, the report fails to mention that opening one of North America’s largest coal mines might have any negative impact on existing Montana jobs. There’s not a word about the negative effects of mining on agriculture in eastern Montana. Nothing about how increased coal train traffic can hurt local businesses in rail line communities. No mention of the way climate change threatens the national parks and other treasures that power Montana’s tourist industry.
Glacier National Park alone supports 4,000 Montana jobs. That’s almost twice the number of jobs the report suggests the Otter Creek Mine would create at the peak of construction. But with Glacier Park’s climate warming at twice the average rate of the globe as a whole, the park’s rapidly-disappearing glaciers (and charismatic wildlife that depend on ecosystems threatened by climate change) may not remain so much of a tourist draw for long.
Yet even if you ignore the negative impacts of coal mining, and take the report’s job estimates at face value, the claim that it shows mining will lead to immense benefits for Montana’s economy makes little sense. This is for a very simple reason, which the media has utterly failed to pick up on: while the report claims mining will create 1,740 permanent jobs in Montana, it also predicts the mine will be responsible for increasing the state’s population by 2,850 people.
In other words, the number of jobs created will be less than the number of new people drawn to the state. So we’ll have more jobs…and a much larger pool of people competing for them. Now, I don’t begrudge anyone who decides to move to Montana. But I fail to see how a project that threatens existing jobs in agriculture and tourism, while creating jobs that largely won’t go to current Montana residents, makes good economic policy.
Of course, the report waxes lyrical about how more people means an increased tax base. All I can say is we’ll certainly need the money, since there will be more folks than ever demanding the state’s services.
Furthermore, it occurs to me that a lot of Montana residents have chosen to live here precisely because they enjoy the state’s wide-open, sparsely populated landscapes. Few of us would ever suggest new people should be barred from moving here. But we might question whether population growth, and increased competition for space and jobs, is something to be celebrated intrinsically.
Nothing characterizes Montana better than this state’s agricultural heritage, its stunning tourist attractions, and the wide open spaces that make it different from, say, Los Angeles. The Otter Creek Mine would threaten all three of these attributes. It’s time to recognize this misguided project for what it is: a ploy by one of the nation’s largest coal companies to make inroads in this state, at the expense of those things which make Montana unique.
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