Monday, October 1, 2012

Coal development in Montana and surface rights

There were recently a couple of articles that highlight some competing interests regarding coal mining in Montana. The first is a Daily Interlake editorial decrying the "war on coal" by the EPA, spurred by the closing of a PPL Montana coal plant, with ownership citing EPA regulations as the proximate cause of rendering the plant unprofitable to keep open.

The story is a familiar one -- the plant would have to be refitted to the tune of $38 million in order to meet current regulations. As someone who breathes the air in this part of the Yellowstone Valley and who has experienced some respiratory problems that were new to me until I moved here, I confess that I would want to know a bit more about just how out-of-date the plant is with regard to emissions before completely dismissing the EPA's standards as unreasonable.

Still, it seems inescapable that the editors are correct that the current bunch at the EPA have "declared war" on coal.

Rick Hill landed a nice body blow to Steve Bullock in the debate the other night on this very topic:

Hill used his question to attack Bullock’s record on coal development, asking why Bullock failed to join 24 state attorneys general from coal-producing states this year when they challenged new Environmental Protection Agency rules Hill said would harm coal-fired power plants.

It seems as though Bullock has a problem choosing which battles to fight. He could tilt at windmills by trying to take down Citizens United singlehandedly. But he couldn't be bothered to file a brief against Obamacare in spite of that law's unpopularity in Montana, and he wouldn't join in challenging EPA coal regulations in spite of his claim to support coal development.

I digress, however. The other article that was interesting to note was this piece in the Washington Post regarding the conflicts that some Montana ranchers are having over coal development.

The strip mining of coal is, without a doubt, the most unpleasant kind of energy resource development to have in one's backyard, since its footprint is so large. It is not a permanent footprint, given modern regulations about the restoration of the soil and landscape, but for a given generation, it probably feels like forever while it goes on.

The fundamental problem, however, is the American system of decoupling surface rights from mineral rights. I am fortunate to own the rights on my own ranch, but not all ranchers are blessed in that way. One thing is certain (at least to me) -- nothing, and I mean nothing, should be allowed to compromise the long-term viability of agricultural activity on anyone's land. Oil wells will eventually run dry, coal beds will be stripped, natural gas will be bled off. But as long as the rain falls and the sun shines, and as long as the soil is pure and ground water is uncontaminated, agriculture can go on -- theoretically forever, if things are taken care of. It is the ultimate renewable resource.

The point here is that while perhaps our legal system shouldn't allow a limitless veto power to surface owners, they should have a powerful say about what mining and drilling happens on land they own -- precisely because they and their descendants will be ranching and farming that land long after the resources beneath the ground are gone. If ranchers are trying to block coal development, it seems pretty clear that they as surface owners aren't being compensated fairly and their concerns aren't being adequately addressed.

While readers of Montana Headlines know that I am pretty bullish on traditional energy development, this is one place where I have to cast my vote with the sometimes curmudgeonly Cattle Queens (and Kings) of Montana.

No comments: