Montana's Pro-Coal Crow Nation Stands Apart From Northwest Tribes
“When it comes to coal, here at Crow you’re not going to have controversy,” said Darrin Old Coyote, chairman of the Crow tribe. Two years ago, he signed an agreement giving Cloud Peak Energy — one of the nation’s biggest coal companies — an option to lease 1.4 billion tons of coal on the reservation. He argued the jobs and revenue the agreement will provide are essential to his community.
“I don’t want to be dependent on the U.S. government. We have the resources, we have the manpower, we have the capability of being self-sufficient. There’s no reason why we should be this poor.”
Alleviating that poverty is the chairman’s top priority. Unemployment on the reservation is somewhere between 25 and 50 percent, housing is scarce, and there’s often not enough money for basic services and infrastructure. Old Coyote said the decision to develop coal has to be understood with these facts in mind – and in the context of 200 years of attacks on the language, land and lives of the Crow.
“All of that. We survived all of that,” Old Coyote explained.“You know, whether it be through assimilation, warfare, small pox, all of that we’ve survived. And we’re gonna continue moving forward to survive, and the only way I know how now is to develop our coal. What I’m doing is in the best interest of my people.”
But will those interests be served by coal? To develop the mine, Cloud Peak says international customers are critical and it needs new export terminals on the west coast. Those terminals face stiff opposition from Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest, and other communities along the rail lines are sounding the alarm as well. There are also serious questions about the project’s economic viability.
Watch: A Puget Sound Tribal Leader Explain Why He Opposes Coal Exports
“A new coal mine is pretty risky right now,” said Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman. “Those export markets that this mine is essentially designed to capture have collapsed in the last five years. And there’s no guarantee that they’re going to come back.”
Carolyn Pease-Lopez represents the Crow reservation in the Montana legislature, and she shares some of Haggerty’s worries: “I’m very concerned about the world market. I’m concerned that we still don’t have those ports in place. And there’s so much hanging in the balance.”
But even with those doubts, Pease-Lopez does not oppose the project.
“I wouldn’t ever try to speak against it," she said, "because I am representing my leaders’ wishes, and the people’s wishes."
Cloud Peak has been losing money on export sales since the middle of 2013, but in a phone interview Manager of Media Relations Rick Curtsinger explained the company sees “long-term growing demand” coming from Vietnam, South Korea and other countries. Plans for the Gateway Pacific terminal and an additional terminal on the Columbia River are currently under environmental review by federal and state agencies.
Kate Martin is a freelance reporter and producer based in Missoula, Montana. This story was produced for EarthFix and Inside Energy.
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