What Pence and Zinke Won’t Hear When They Visit Montana Coal Country

(because they didn’t ask)

Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke are in Montana to tour some of coal country on federal and tribal lands. This is the first time the White House has come to see Western coalfields since terminating the coal leasing moratorium and the important program review that was underway last year.

Vice President Pence and Secretary Zinke seem determined to not hear the full story of the impacts that coal mining have on the region. In true fashion, they are only hearing from the coal industry and their allies who support more coal production on federal lands. But there are plenty of people available who wish to talk to the administration that won’t have that chance.

What would Vice President Pence and Secretary Zinke hear if these folks, instead of just the people who profit from increased coal production, got a chance to talk?

1) Not All Tribes Are Being Consulted about the Future of Coal

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is based in southeast Montana, next to the Crow Reservation, which is a big coal production area. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe are greatly concerned about the effects that coal development on federal and tribal lands have on their air, water and land. Yet, when Secretary Zinke lifted the federal coal moratorium, he didn’t so much as consult with this tribe.

Credit: WildEarth Guardians

This lack of discussion led to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe suing the federal government. As President of the Northern Cheyenne, L. Jace Killsback, said at that moment:

“It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation or evaluating the impacts to our Reservation and our residents.”

As The Wilderness Society has written and said, coal production has tremendous impacts on surrounding land and communities. For these communities, specifically a tribal community, to not have a voice in decisions made that directly affect their well-being is unconscionable. And even worse, as the Vice President and Secretary of the Interior come to visit, they will not even come to discuss what has already happened and their plans for the region with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. They seem to be looking to only hear from industry executives who agree with them and will profit from the selling out of federal and tribal lands.

2) Coal Mining in the West Hurts Ranchers and Landowners and the Water They Depend On

There are many ranchers and landowners throughout the west, including in Montana, who have a lot to lose from increased and continuing coal production on public and tribal lands in the region.

As rancher Art Hayes has documented, his livestock, and their feed, depend on clean water to survive. Because this area of southeastern Montana only gets about a foot of rainfall a year, he is very reliant on the rivers and creeks near his property. But with coal mining expanding nearby, those waterways are becoming polluted and endangering his way of life.

The Tongue River is downstream from the Decker Mine. Credit: Colin Ruggiero

But the Trump administration doesn’t want to hear about Art’s concerns. They want to hear from the coal executives who would see more money at the expense of Art and his livelihood.

3) Coal Isn’t Cheap or Clean

With its focus on producing more coal from federal and tribal lands, this administration is endangering air, water and people all over the country. Coal production is a dangerous business, for those in and out of the industry. Their focus on an industry that is in trouble because of the good old fashioned free market aims to turn back the clock not look to the future. As natural gas and renewable energy have decreased in cost, these energy sources have increased in production. Trying to prop up the industry with photo ops and forced intervention is going to put people’s health and home at risk, while hurting our environment.

Coal mine in Powder River Basin, Wyoming. Credit: EcoFlight

Instead of trying to prop up an industry, this administration should focus on helping people and communities in coal country. This means not cutting budgets that help coal miners and coal communities transition towards a sustainable future. This means investing in renewable energy. This means making sure that coal companies are not putting cleanup costs onto the taxpayers and then giving them more of our land to pollute.

Selling out our public lands to the coal industry is not a winning formula for tribes, for ranchers or for the American people. But by just talking to fossil fuel industry CEOs and their ilk, this administration won’t be getting a straight answer on how to fix the problems plaguing coal country. They need to be broadening their horizons and meeting people that are truly affected by increased coal production.

This is a real missed opportunity to help people, but this administration seems more intent on seizing opportunities to sell out our lands to the highest bidders.