Kevin Murphy has worked at the Rosebud coal mine for 15 years, running a bulldozer which works in tandem with a dragline – a machine as big as a ship with a giant boom that extends 300 feet up into the air. The dragline perches on the lip of an open pit, scraping away hundreds of feet of rocky soil to reveal the black seam of compressed prehistoric peat that humans have been burning for fuel for millennia.
Colstrip is what it sounds like it is: a town built next to a strip mine. It was founded in the 1920s by the Northern Pacific Railway, which used the coal to run its trains. Today, the fuel is loaded onto a conveyer belt and carried to the other side of town, where it’s pulverized and burned in the second largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi. Massive transmission lines coming out of the plant carry that power out across Montana and the west. Thirty percent of it goes all the way to Puget Sound in Washington.
“Our coal’s getting deeper, like everywhere else," Murphy says, "because everybody’s mining they’re getting into the deeper stuff.”
On August 3, the Environmental Protection Agency released a new set of rules designed to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released by power plants. Dubbed the Clean Power Plan, the goal is to cut carbon pollution from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide from 2005 levels. In an energy-rich state like Montana, the CPP could have a direct impact on many lives and livelihoods – especially in the town of Colstrip.
Kevin’s wife Marti Murphy works in the accounts payable office at the mine. She likes Colstrip
“It’s a really community-minded place," she says, "everyone watches out for everyone’s kids.”
Marti says the well-paying, stable jobs provided by the coal industry have made this town strong.
“We have free golf if you live in the city limits, free gym membership if you live in the city limits, walking paths all around town, a park in every single neighborhood that you could think of. I love it. I love working here, I love living here. This is a great town to live in.”
Marti says most people aren’t well informed about where their power comes from, and that people who picture sooty streets and polluted skies haven’t visited Colstrip.
"I feel like that is how we’re perceived, as a dirty coal mining town. It’s just not true."
Zane Longacre works across the highway from the Murphys at the power plant, where the freshly mined coal is turned into electricity using steam generators. He describes the generators as, "just a big fireball in a square box covered with water."
Longacre’s job is to make sure that fireball is burning safely. He was raised in Colstrip and returned to his home town eight years ago. He and his wife Angela have five children and another on the way, and for them, efforts to shut down coal-fired power plants feel very personal.
"I feel like decisions are made sometimes without considering the people that are being affected by the jobs. It just seems heartless that they don’t consider the employees, you know. To uproot people, change their lives – it’s harsh."
Marti Murphy agrees.
"It’s pretty scary" she says, "because you think about it and then you have to think, 'well, where would we go if something happened?' This is where I want to live until I retire and I hope I can do that."
I asked Mark Haggerty, an economist at the non-profit Headwaters Economics in Bozeman: "If you’re a family in Colstrip, should you be worried?"
"I would be worried," he said.
Haggerty says reducing dependency on coal is a primary objective of the Clean Power Plan. According to the EPA, 39 percent of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal, but coal accounts for 77 percent of CO2 emissions from the electric power sector. However, Haggerty says the CPP may not be the biggest factor affecting Colstrip’s future.
"There are larger market trends that are already forcing a big transition away from coal towards natural gas. Cheap natural gas has really put a dent in coal."
Haggerty says as coal production declines – for whatever combination of reasons – Montana should learn from its long history with boom-and-bust economies and start planning now to help places like Colstrip build resilience.
"We care about these places, right? We want to do what we can in the midst of a transition to both facilitate the transition and also to take care of the people who are not going to...to benefit."
Haggerty says that planning begins by looking to other coal towns in Appalachia, timber communities in Oregon, and agricultural communities in the midwest, "who have already gone through this transition. What lessons could we learn that we can plan for? Assuming that the transition away from coal is going to happen, what should we be doing to help these communities understand the transition that’s likely to come and what they can do themselves, but also what they need help with from the state, and potentially from the federal government."
While coal communities may need to plan for decreasing production, the Clean Power Plan could encourage new investment in renewables, like wind.
The American Wind Energy Association ranks Montana third among states with potential on-shore wind power generation. But it's currently 21st in the nation for installed wind production. Haggerty says the infrastructure to move wind energy toward population centers is one of the primary things holding it back.
"The barrier is the transmission capacity and reliability. And those issues I think will be resolved, and I would expect that we could see renewables being a significant competitor with both coal and natural gas over the next decade. I think it’s happening much faster than people anticipated."
For Jenni Bryce, it started 16 years ago, when she founded Pine Ridge Products, a small-scale solar and wind installation company that she operates out of her home outside of Belt, near Great Falls. Bryce didn’t plan to become a renewable energy entrepreneur –
"No, I’m actually a speech therapist," she says, laughing.
But after she and her husband put up solar panels and a wind turbine for their own use, other families started asking them for advice. That led them to start consulting and installing, manufacturing parts, and designing new turbine models, including one for the Department of Defense.
Right now, Bryce is working with a company on a prototype for a residential wind system that ties into the existing power grid.
"So that it does make it a little more accessible for people just to maybe just try out wind and see what it’s like."
Although Bryce says she’s happy to be contributing to a cleaner atmosphere, climate change was not what motivated her to start her business. In true Montana fashion, her passion is self-sufficiency. She points out that rural families like hers have been using windmills for a long time.
"I mean they’ve been using them for water pumping. And you look back at our history of rural electrification and before that they used windmills connected to batteries for their power in their houses."
Bryce says she does see a lot of potential for growth in the wind and solar industries, but she doesn’t think of it as a revolution.
"I guess maybe I would like it be a revival. You know, to go back to our roots."
Governor Bullock and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox both released statements expressing disappointment in the Clean Power Plan. Fox says he may join other states attorneys general in suing the EPA over the new rule. If that doesn’t happen, state legislators have the choice of using the federal plan or crafting their own plan designed to address Montana’s specific needs. On September 10, an interim subcommittee will meet to discuss those options.
Back in Colstrip, Zane Longacre believes Montana should chart its own course forward.
"I think the state needs to make those decision for our own state. You know, we do know what’s best for our state."
I asked Longacre if he thought the so-called dirty and clean parts of Montana’s energy economy could work together on that plan, or if he thought of the wind and solar industries as his enemies.
"No, I don’t see them as my enemy, I think that’s silliness. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having other options out there. That’s just part of sustainability and making the planet cleaner, so. Keeping it clean."