Fifteen trains a day, on average, rolled through Billings last year. If a passing train has interrupted your journey as you drove, bicycled or walked toward the tracks on 27th, 28th or 29th Streets North, downtown, you realize that this annoyance could turn to disaster if you were doing something like driving an ambulance from the south side of the tracks to reach one of the hospitals on the north side.
Now picture up to 40 more trains per day, either moving west heaped with coal bound for Asia or returning empty. These coal cars would fill up again in the Powder River Basin and other “Western Bituminous” coalfields in Montana and Wyoming, which now supply more than 42 percent of the nation’s coal.
If more and more trains passing through is the future for Billings - and for other railroad towns on the way to ports on the West Coast - then the force driving us toward this future is the declining demand for coal in the U.S. - and the coal companies’ desire to stay profitable.
The recent drop is U.S. coal consumption is dramatic: Coal-fired electric power generation was down 11.6 percent in 2008-2009 alone. Coal, which was generating more than half the electricity in the United States, now is at 44.5 percent, the same percentage as in 1978. For Arch Coal, Cloud Peak, Peabody and other players, one way to reverse this trend is supplying the rising demand in Asia.
A March 9-10 conference at Montana State University Billings focused on coal exports and coal trains. It was not about mining and burning coal – “that’s important,” said one of the organizers, Walter Gulick, “but that’s a subject for another conference.” Since this event was billed as a “conversation,” speakers and panelists had their say, but so did audience members, discussing what to do about:
• Track crossing delays totaling as much as a third of each day.
• Pollution from diesel fumes and coal dust.
• Effects of excessive noise.
• Who will pay to mitigate these problems.
Yellowstone Valley Citizen’s Council, an affiliate of the Northern Plains Resource Council, teamed with the Downtown Billings Alliance and MSU Billings’ Urban Institute to sponsor the conference. The audience topped out at around 80 people and was mixed in age, gender and political affiliation, which meant that broader concerns inevitably came up in questions and discussions throughout the two days.
Economist Thomas Michael Power - in his opening presentation called “Coal Train Training” – cited the four items above but added land and water disturbance by increased strip mining, industrialization of U.S. coastlines, pollution from coal burned half a planet away still reaching us here, increased greenhouse gas emissions and consequent global warming.
Tom Power had planned to attend in person, but his wife had just broken her hip, and he needed to stay in Missoula to care for her, so instead, his face and then his maps and charts showed up on a big screen.
One thing that Power’s maps made clear is that Wyoming is mining coal so much faster than Montana not because Wyoming has more coal (it doesn’t – Montana has two times more “recoverable reserves”) and not because Wyoming has a better “business climate” but chiefly because of geography.
“Blame God,” said Power, for placing Wyoming closer to coal-fired electrical generating plants in the eastern and southern U.S. And blame the federal Clean Air Act, Power added, assisting the Creator by requiring power plants to incorporate low-sulfur Western coal in their feedstock.
Increased coal exports to Asia, however, erase Wyoming’s geographical advantage. Montana coal fields are nearer to existing, expanding or proposed ports in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, where coal can be loaded into massive ships that rumble slowly along the “Great Circle” route to China and neighboring countries.
Isn’t there plenty of coal in Asia? Yes, Power said, but thanks to the efficiency of railroads and the economy of scale of gigantic ships, coal from across the Pacific competes in price with coal produced in places like Mongolia and Siberia. There, the lack of transportation infrastructure means that coal must travel very far, in trucks, on dirt roads. Even coal mined in parts of northern China goes to the coast and is loaded into ships for transport to power plants in southern China.
Other panels over the two days were varied and informative. Some highlights:
Designing a railroad town
Kevin Kooistra of the Western Heritage Center presented an engaging historic overview – 27 slides on the big screen – showing how railroad towns in the West were designed. In Billings, the tracks cut through the middle of the town and whichever side gets the depot and surrounding amenities ends up being favored.
In Billings, clearly, the north side was favored, chosen early as the cultural and economic hub. The South Side - as Marion Dozier’s later presentation made clear by implication - got industrial sites and blue collar housing, but not much political clout. Dozier was involved in a South Side initiative called “Over, Under or Around” – a group of people who attempted for 10 years to develop solutions to the north-south railroad crossing problem, but eventually gave up. Others involved in planning transportation for the city kept putting the South Side’s concerns on the back burner to focus on things like developing the Shiloh Overpass to facilitate urban expansion westward.
Kevin Kooistra’s slides showed that not all towns designed by railroads are bisected by tracks; Laurel is closer to a one-side-of-the-track town (not entirely) while Townsend is an example of a one-side-of-the-track town with a classic “T” shape, the Main Street perpendicular to the tracks.
That design would have made more sense for Billings.
Ed Gulick, a local architect whose firm is near the tracks, took the projections of increased coal traffic and came up with a maximum figure of 64 train passes, east or west, either freight train or coal. He hung around the downtown crossings with a stopwatch, and timed the delays. They averaged eight minutes. That comes to 8 1/2 hours per day.
The BNSF voice
The only panelist from either a coal company or a railroad who accepted an invitation to speak was Zak Andersen, vice president for community and government affairs for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. No one from Montana Rail Link. No one from Arch Coal, Cloud Peak or Peabody.
Andersen played down projections of as many as 64 trains passing through town east or west each day. “We don’t know what the coal market is going to do,” he said. “This goes up and down.”
He commented that in the last quarter of 2011 coal traffic actually was down, due to lower natural gas prices. He pointed out that while port expansions are being considered in places like Bellingham and Longview, Wash., none have yet been approved and no building has begun.
Is BNSF planning an expansion of facilities, based on expanding coal exports? Not at this time.
He said that rail freight in general is increasing. He cited a figure of 40 tons of freight per person per year in the U.S., and said an expanding U.S. population is driving this increase, so that “we need to look at this holistically.” Growth plans should focus on crossings, he said, and communities typically need about 10 years to decide what to do. He recommended studying what Galesburg, Ill., and Olathe, Kan., which have many railroad crossings, did to finance underpasses, overpasses, quiet zones and certain closures of crossings.
There needs to be “a variety of funding,” Andersen said, and mentioned the former governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sibelius, who set up a state fund to deal with this, a fund to which BNSF Railroad apparently chipped in 5 percent.
Murmuring about who pays
Some people – between sessions – murmured about this 5 percent contributed by BNSF, wondering where Montana Rail Link would stand on this subject, speculating about the reluctance of coal companies, or the buyers of coal, to chip in on these “externalized” costs that are shoved onto the rest of us.
Overpasses, underpasses, lowering train tracks: All are expensive. An engineer for the city, Erin Claunch, described various local transportation studies dating back to 1960, listing problems and proposed solutions. The multi-million dollar price tags and logistical obstacles involved in overpasses, underpasses, lowering train tracks – even establishing a quiet zone where trains do not sound their horns – can be daunting.
City-County Planning Director Candi Beaudry brought up Reno, Nev., where in a six-year period (1999-2005) that city managed to get Union Pacific Railroad to lower its tracks through a section of the city. Big project. The issue wasn’t coal trains; it was preserving or reviving real estate values in the area.
Total cost: $265 million, paid for by federal grants and, locally, by a sales tax, special improvement tax, hotel room tax and a city bond. Did Union Pacific Railroad chip in? Yes, $17 million. Just 6.9 percent of the total. All this, according to Beaudry’s power point slide, for $11.3 million in real estate benefits.
Something else to murmur about.
“Increased coal trains will impact the health of my patients,” said Dr. Robert Merchant, a pulmonologist at Billings Clinic, citing study after study that shows how diesel fumes, dust, particles of a particular size (2.5 microns: They burrow into the lungs and, especially if they’re coated with benzene or other pollutants, are carcinogenic) along with – yes – noise all can bring on a variety of maladies including heart attacks, strokes, asthma and lung cancer.
This is complicated by the tremendous variability in exposure – time of day, type of train, proximity – and by personal vulnerability, but in economic terms, Merchant said, these diesel fume, coal dust, noise impacts are “negative externalities” that “impose uncompensated costs on others, costs not borne by those experiencing the benefits.”
Don’t count on the boom
Larry Swanson’s energetic power point used population trends, demographic and economic data to offer a cautionary perspective on the various energy booms now hitting this region: coal exports, coal bed methane, hydraulic fracturing (called “fracking”) of deep layers of rock to release deposits of oil or natural gas, the Alberta tar sands and the possibility of a pipeline through this region to carry this oil to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
“I follow the numbers,” Swanson said. “I don’t follow the buzz.” Hence: don’t bet on these energy booms as a reliable source of jobs and prosperity; don’t count on them rescuing rural Montana. Other, larger factors are driving our state’s and region’s economy.
Catching Swanson in the hallway, I mentioned that Signal Peak Coal Mine in the Bull Mountains – the only large scale underground coal mine in Montana – has had a negligible effect on the town of Roundup, where I live. Some local people have jobs there, but the majority of workers commute north out of Shepherd or Billings, and the work force is transient. Main Street Roundup looks at least as hollowed out as it did before the mine came in. More, not fewer, houses around town are up for sale, or are simply shuttered, empty, waiting.
Swanson directs the University of Montana’s Center for the American West and, like Tom Power (in books like “Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies” and “Accounting for Mother Nature”) Swanson advocates devoting our attention to areas where we can actually make a difference, longer term. Quality of life in our communities is a big one. Schools, parks, trails, cultural opportunities: Whatever we can do to enhance that will bring in people and more opportunity.
As impacts press upon us – such as a possible tripling of coal trains heading west through our towns – “we need to find ways,” Swanson said, “to get those people who are making the profits pay for the costs they inflict on all of us.”