COLSTRIP, Mont. – After several years of taking a beating from the poor economy, new pollution rules and a flood of cheap natural gas, the coal industry was on the rebound this year as mining projects moved forward and demand for the fuel began to rise, especially in Asia.
But almost overnight, coal is back on the defensive amid President Barack Obamas renewed push to rein in climate change.
The proposal, with its emphasis on cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, would put facilities like the 2,100-megawatt Colstrip electricity plant in eastern Montana in regulators cross hairs. That has profound spin-off implications for the massive strip mines that provide the bulk of the nations coal.
Montanas sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives bluntly declared that the administration had decided to pick winners and losers in the energy sector with its plan. He wants to move toward shutting down the coal industry, Republican Rep. Steve Daines said.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency rejected claims that the administrations plan would exclude coal. They pointed to billions of dollars being spent by the government on technologies to capture and store carbon dioxide from coal plants.
The Colstrip plant, which dominates the skyline of a coal-centered town by the same name, burns about 10 million tons of coal a year from a nearby mine and provides power to customers as far away as Seattle.
According to the EPA, the plant churned out more than 15 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, the latest year for which data was available. Thats roughly equivalent to the emissions from about 3 million cars running for a year.
Last Monday, as Colstrips towering smokestacks poured out a constant plume of steam and smoke into otherwise blue skies, pipe fitter Joe Ashworth, 60, was nearby packing up his RV. He spent the past two months working on a maintenance project at the plant. The traveling union worker said people in the coal industry were nervous that efforts to curb emissions could cost jobs and drive up electricity prices.
Go green, sure. But do you have an electrical vehicle that will pull my trailer so I can make a living? he asked.
Despite a frequently heard boast that the state has more coal than anywhere else in the U.S., antipathy toward the administrations plan is not universal in Montana. One of Daines predecessors, former Rep. Pat Williams, said last week that rising temperatures pointed to a doomsday scenario if carbon emissions were not addressed.
Others maintain that the worries over lost jobs are overstated. On Tuesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council plans to release a report detailing jobs that would be created because of the work needed to retrofit plants such as Colstrip. The environmental group said its analysis of the administrations plan shows 3,600 jobs in Montana alone.