Climate + Energy

Pushing for Just Transition in Montana Coal Country

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Trump and Zinke have been working extra hard to make good on Trump’s promise to bring coal back, as evident in the recent desperate attempt to save a failing mining company, Westmoreland Coal.

On the table is a proposal by Westmoreland Coal to expand its Rosebud Coal Mine in Colstrip, Montana, unleashing 70 million tons of publicly owned coal to wreak havoc on our water, air, and climate. 

This is a massive proposal – of the 700 or so coal mine in the United States, it would rank in the top two percent of all US coal mines in terms of annual output.

 

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The location of the Rosebud Coal Mine in Colstrip, MT.

 

Not only is this proposal a bad deal for the climate, it’s also a bad deal economically as Westmoreland is on the brink of bankruptcy, as I’ll explain more below.

We’re outraged at Westmoreland’s audacity to ask for more coal.

Last week, WildEarth Guardians and others pushed back against this insane expansion in a 69-page formal comment to the federal government, citing the government’s failure to analyze climate change, water quality, and air quality impacts, among other deficiencies. We further denounced the government’s failure to even address the need to transition the community and workers from the inevitable closure of the Rosebud Mine and the Colstrip Power Plant it feeds.

We called on the agency to fully analyze and disclose a host of environmental and public health impacts associated with the mine and Colstrip and to weigh alternatives that advance transition from coal to clean energy and more sustainable economies.

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Colstrip’s coup de grâce is on the horizon. 

As I mentioned, Rosebud supplies almost all of its production to the 2,100 megawatt Colstrip Power Station that is adjacent to the mine and was specifically designed to burn Rosebud coal. They are essentially a “package deal.”

It was bad news for Rosebud then when Colstrip power plant’s majority owner recently reached an agreement to shutter the plant in 2027, almost two decades earlier than expected, due to economic, environmental, legal, and political considerations. Despite this, Westmoreland wants to expand and extend the life of Rosebud mine into 2038. This completely ignores that Colstrip will retire well before 2038, and absolutely before existing permitted coal reserves are used.

All that to say, this excess coal is completely unnecessary and stands as a roadblock in the American West’s clean energy future.

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Colstrip Power Plant, fueled by Rosebud Mine, is the second largest plant west of the Mississippi, making it among the nation’s most dangerous polluters.

Outside of Colstrip’s inevitable closure, leaving Rosebud without a customer, the coal company itself is completely crashing.

Stock experts have said that Westmoreland’s future looks bleak – bankruptcy is very likely, and they have warned that the company “is a landmine, only a miracle can save it.”

Even a cursory look at the numbers reveals only bad news for the failing company – the current stock price is trading at 50 cents a share, with an almost total loss in value over the past year (from over $17 per share a year ago to only $0.54 for the week of March 1, 2018). Additionally, the company is over a billion dollars in debt.

 

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In the past 6 years, Westmoreland has only broken into the black 3 times – that’s 20 failed quarterly earnings. In any other industry, this company would have shuttered long ago.

 

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This annual chart shows Westmoreland’s stock prices from March 2017 until March 2018, in a total downturn. The company’s shares have lost 97% of their value over the past year, where the broader stock market has made gains during the same time period. Via Yahoo Finance.

This is no surprise, as we have said before – utilities across the U.S. continue to coal-fired power plants at a rapid pace, cutting heavily into demand for coal. The high maintenance and operating costs of the aging plants have made them uncompetitive, where cheap natural gas and the falling cost of wind and solar generation are taking the market share.

But despite all of the facts, and like his failed businesses of the past, Trump insists on promoting another bad deal.

WildEarth Guardians are digging our heels in hard against this awful and dangerous proposal – it’s a terrible decision for the local community’s health, economy, and the wider climate.

It’s not as if Montana doesn’t have other options – their renewables energy capacity is strong and the first 10 years of wind development in Montana produced $77 million for taxes and $16 million in land leases.

What we have here is not an issue of whether coal mining should be approved or not. It’s an issue of whether Trump is going to support workers and local communities in the transition from coal, and keep coal’s dirty emissions out of our air, or whether he’s going to line his friends’ pockets.

We know that we can do better.

WildEarth Guardians will keep fighting this coal mine expansion and allow Montana’s energy infrastructure room for more sustainable alternatives. By our accounts, Trump has less than 3 years left to his Presidency, but in the meantime, we won’t stand for his bad deals that wreck our climate and ruin our chances for a cleaner future.