The Billings Outpost

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Otter Creek coal foes bring lawyers to fight

The State Land Board had better lawyer up since legal challenges to the recently approved Otter Creek coal leases are coming thick and fast.

First out of the chute was the Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council and the National Wildlife Federation. Their lawsuit, filed May 13 in the 16th Judicial District Court in Powder River County (Broadus), claims that the board did not adequately examine potential impacts of the mining on farming, ranching, water and wildlife in Otter Creek and the Tongue River Valley and therefore the leases violate the Montana Constitution.

“The Land Board has no business selling off coal mining rights to out-of-state developers without first looking into what it might mean for our land and groundwater. This mine might be good for China, but it’s not good for Montana,” stated Mark Fix, who ranches in the valley about 150 miles east of Billings.

The Land Board, which consists of the governor, attorney general, state auditor, superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state, voted 4-1 to approve the leases last December and then voted 3-2 on March 18 to cut the minimum bid from 25 cents to 15 cents per ton. Successful (and only) bidder was Arch Coal, which, through its Ark Land Co. subsidiary, has paid the state about $86 million for rights to mine the coal.

Strip mining the 572 million tons of relatively low-sulfur Otter Creek coal is expected to require construction of the controversial Tongue River Railroad.

The NPRC and NWF lawsuit states that the railroad would cut through 130 miles of ranch land and turn the valley into an “industrial corridor.”

The groups also assert that the coal isn’t needed. Citing a recent study commissioned by the nonpartisan Civil Society Institute, they say that America’s energy needs can be met without the use of coal and that the United States can save more than $13 billion over the next 40 years by making investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Last Friday, the Helena-based Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, also filed suit against the Land Board in Powder River County, citing alleged violations of “the state’s constitutional and fiduciary obligation to prevent unreasonable environmental degradation.”

This second complaint alleges that Otter Creek coal, when burned in power plants, could emit 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide, adding to the planet’s greenhouse-gas problem. It quotes University of Montana Professor Steve Running saying that the board’s vote approving the leases is “the single most important decision in the history of Montana” from a carbon-emissions point of view.

While noting that the mining company would need state permits before developing the strip-mining project, MEIC and Earthjustice contend that since the land board did not impose any conditions when it approved the leases, it “no longer has the ability to condition the leasing of the coal on measures to avoid the most significant environmental impacts.”

“There is a reason that the law requires decision makers to ‘look before they lease.’ Our elected officials are not permitted to blindly lead their constituents down the global warming rabbit hole,” stated Sierra Club representative Mike Scott.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who supports the Otter Creek coal leases, indicated that he finds the lawsuits premature and that state oversight on mining permits will take a number of steps.

“We have in no way said they have passed all environmental muster,” he told the Associated Press last week. “What Arch has right now is the exclusive right to begin the process of applying for permits. And they have a 10-year period under which they have the right to do that.”


Oil spill

There’s a small positive development to report regarding the massive BP oil leak that’s spewing several thousands of barrels each day into the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana. On Sunday, engineers reportedly were able to vacuum up some of the oil from the drilling well into a ship via a 4-inch pipe.

Earlier efforts to cap the leak were unsuccessful, although workers haven’t given up. There is also a relief well being drilled that was about halfway completed over the weekend. That’s a much longer-term strategy since experts said it could take months to complete.

The finger-pointing continues apace, with BP blaming its subcontractors and vice versa. Meanwhile, there are concerns that chemical dispersants being used to break up the oil could harm fisheries and wildlife in the area in ways unknown at present. There are also projections that several times more oil is actually being released than was at first indicated.

In response to what President Obama called the “ridiculous spectacle” of company officials blaming each other for the oil spill and the apparent “cozy relationship” between federal regulators and the firms they regulate, he is proposing legislation to lift existing caps on damages, increase the amount per incident that can be spent from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, and help those whose livelihoods are harmed by such spills, among other provisions.


Second take

After noting in my May 5 column that tea party protesters didn’t seem to be getting many supportive responses recently on 11th and Montana Avenue near the State Capitol, members invited me down to their noon-hour placard-waving protest near Carroll College this past week.

The different venue on Euclid Avenue made all the difference since the group of sign-wavers was greeted with lots of honks and thumbs-up signs in the half-hour or so I was there. As the real-estate folks say, “location, location, location.”


Quote of the week

“I will not tolerate more finger-pointing or irresponsibility. The system failed, and it failed badly. And for that, there is enough responsibility to go around. And all parties should be willing to accept it.”

– President Barack Obama, May 14, 2010, in a White House Rose Garden discussion on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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