U.S.

Montana: Big Sky country at an environmental crossroads

Montana'€™s 'emerging, sprawling fossil fuel resistance'€ unites Native Americans, cowboys and activists

Land near the property of Don and Irene Moffett in Glendive, Mont., where the Keystone pipeline will pass. The couple worries that Keystone will degrade the land.
Nate Schweber

GLENDIVE, Mont. — In the kitchen of a small white farmhouse down a corrugated dirt road, through a sea of grass, Irene Moffett pointed at chalky buttes on the blue horizon. For generations, her family has worked this land. Now, one mile from her property, a Canadian company hopes to lay the Keystone XL pipeline, which would siphon crude oil from Canada's tar-sand mines to a seaport on the Gulf of Mexico. 

"Most jobs won't last after the pipeline's built, and what happens if there's a spill?" said Moffett, 77. "Why should we put up with the pollution, the disruption of agricultural lands? What's in it for Montana?"

Across this massive state, with scenery ranging from snowy mountains to virgin prairies, a diverse collection of Montanans, in love with their land, is opposing new transportation infrastructure for coal and oil.

Three proposed projects — the Keystone XL pipeline, a new coal railroad and a trucking route for mining equipment the size of apartment buildings — have triggered protests in different regions of the state, and not just from people who dislike fossil fuels.

Ranchers, Native Americans, farmers and environmentalists say they don't want the industrialization of the land that comes with moving the fuels and with the equipment needed for their extraction.

"A certain amount of that has to happen," said Moffett's husband, Donald Moffett, 84, standing on tawny fields his grandparents homesteaded in 1909. "But I'd just as soon it stay agriculture."

Moffet
Irene Moffett in her kitchen.
Nate Schweber

The fuels these proposed projects would transport are among the filthiest on earth, some scientists warn. Environmentalists argue that burning coal and Canadian tar sands oil could saturate the atmosphere with a critical amount of carbon dioxide — so much that the climate would heat up even faster than it is already warming. Many are calling the northwestern United States, with Montana at its heart, a carbon choke point — that is, a place where opponents might stop dirty fossil fuels before they can be burned.

Montana is "potentially a real cork in the carbon bottle," said author and activist Bill McKibben. "And it's a perfect illustration of the emerging, sprawling fossil-fuel resistance. It's necessarily centered in local concerns."

Keystone

The most controversial of the pending projects is the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a project yet to be approved by President Barack Obama's administration. Around the world, many have debated the project in terms of risk to the climate, potential to make the United States more energy independent and opportunity to create wealth. But more is at stake in Montana. 

Bill Whitehead, who serves on the water commission for the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, said his mind changed on Keystone in 2011. That year, a leaking Exxon pipeline in southeastern Montana dumped more than 60,000 gallons of crude oil into an 85-mile stretch of the Yellowstone River. Then he learned about a pipeline from Alberta's tar sands that ruptured in Michigan in 2010. About a million gallons of a heavy crude oil called bitumen poured into the Kalamazoo River, where it sank to the bottom, complicating the cleanup. The same kind of crude is set to flow through Keystone, across the Missouri River, just upstream from the reservation.

"Initially you think about the jobs," said Whitehead, a tribal elder who lives in Wolf Point. "And then you think about the bigger picture." He wrote to both of Obama's secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, urging them to oppose Keystone.

Pipeline proponents, though, note that extraction is already the third-largest industry in the state, behind tourism and agribusiness. Even without the 283 miles of Keystone set to slice across the eastern part of the state, they say, Montana has 6,700 miles of pipelines. 

Proponents also say that the state could use the more than $60 million in annual tax revenue the pipeline would supposedly generate. Farmers and ranchers struggling to afford their land would benefit from direct payments for pipeline easements. Richard Dunbar, commissioner in Phillips County, Mont., where Keystone is poised to enter the U.S., said the pipeline could actually help agriculture. A small amount of oil may seep, he said, and put nutrients in the soil.

Missouri
The Missouri River near the Fort Peck Indian Reservation
Nate Schweber

"You won't even be able to tell where the pipeline is, except the grass will be taller," said Dunbar, 63, who is also the president of the Montana Association of Oil, Gas & Coal Counties. "That thing's going to be the safest pipeline that's ever been built."

But others remain skeptical. Dena Hoff, who ranches in Glendive, just downstream from the green fields of hay that Keystone would tunnel under before crossing the Yellowstone River, isn't convinced the pipeline wouldn't eventually spill.

"I'm worried about my water," she said. "What about my rights?"

Spill worries have turned more acute as Montanans in Keystone's path look to the nearby booming natural gas drilling fields that span the border with North Dakota. Here, in a sweep of prairie called the Bakken oil fields that has allowed Montana and North Dakota to boast some of the lowest unemployment in the nation, many spills have just come to light. In October a North Dakota wheat farmer tending his field found a pipe that had burst and slathered his land with 865,000 gallons of oil, enough to cover seven football fields. Then an AP investigation revealed that in the last two years, there were 300 other spills in North Dakota, mostly small, none reported.

"Why should we put up with oil spills?" said Sierra Dawn Stoneberg Holt, 41, who ranches cattle on her family land, a panorama of dusky prairie in Valley County, just south of Keystone's route.

Sue Frary, 58, who lives in Malta, the seat of neighboring Phillips County, was even more blunt.

"One year of jobs for a lifetime of risk?" she said. "Bite me."

Montana's constitution guarantees all residents "a clean and healthful environment." Written in 1972, it was a response to the scorched-earth legacy left by early-20th-century industrialists. Copper barons made fortunes and then left to future generations hundreds of square miles of land spoiled by arsenic and a mile-long toxic pit in a residential area in the town of Butte.

Since TransCanada, the company that owns Keystone, is based in Edmonton, Alberta, most of the money from the pipeline would flow out of state, argue opponents. In fact, it would flow out of the country altogether. Meanwhile, Montana would assume the risks of spills, fires, industrial decay and diminished property values. Some say it makes the state just an energy colony of Canada, or, as Kyla Maki, energy director at the Montana Environmental Information Center, put it, "a conveyor belt."

Laurel spill
Cleanup crews work to collect oil from alongside the Yellowstone River in Laurel, Mont., in 2011. A nearby ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured and spilled an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude into the Yellowstone.
Jim Urquhart/AP

According to TransCanada, all 539 Montanans who own land set to be crossed by the pipeline agreed to easements and signed confidentiality agreements. Shawn Howard, a company spokesman, said TransCanada would be "responsible for costs" if something went wrong.

But several Montana farmers and ranchers whose land the pipeline would cross said they didn't support the project but felt powerless to stand in its way. One farmer who declined to give his name said that he tried criticizing the pipeline and was shunned by his community, costing him business.

Coal rail

Southeastern Montana's Tongue River valley, a region of bluffs and badlands, has become a rallying ground for opposition to a railroad that would move another carbon-rich fuel, coal. There, some ranchers and farmers who typically support mining have joined with Native Americans and environmentalists to oppose construction of a 42-mile railway through one of the few river valleys in the state not lined with track.

"I don't call myself an environmentalist, and if it's of benefit to the country, I have no problem with that. But my concern is, is it going to wreck this area?" said Adam Borntreger, 38, who lives in a pastoral Amish community in Ashland on the banks of the Tongue River.

His house, on a dirt road used by horse-drawn carts, is right in the path of the proposed railroad, which would haul coal to be burned to generate electricity, which Borntreger doesn't use.

"The people who live here," said his brother David Borntreger, 46, "have to worry about their home lives' being destroyed."

Alexis Bonogofsky, who works for the National Wildlife Federation and farms not far from the Tongue River, helped organize high-profile protests this fall against the railroad and a proposed mine in nearby Otter Creek.

The industrialization of any wild and scenic place goes against the aesthetic of the West.

Susan Estep

"These things could affect land that has been owned by generations of ranchers, that Native Americans have always called home," Bonogofsky said. "These are local issues."

At a gas station on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, tribe member Leslie Stump criticized companies that applied to the federal Surface Transportation Board in 2012 for permission to build the railroad.

"It's going to hurt our hunting grounds, maybe affect our water," said Stump, 30, from the back of a horse. "Cheyennes, we fought for this land. Our elders, they don't want to ruin the land."

Environmentalists fear that the railroad could make inevitable the mining of Otter Creek. Kim Link, a spokeswoman for Arch Coal, a St. Louis, Mo., company that hopes to mine the creek, said the project would be in harmony with the land.

"Development of the Otter Creek coal reserves would be done in a responsible manner," she said.

Wade Sikorski.
Nate Schweber

With a view of the Tongue River valley to his west and the nearby path set to be cut by Keystone to the east, Wade Sikorski, from Baker, said the two projects are related.

"I think people are taking a very short view on how these will impact this area," said Sikorski, 57, who wrote a book criticizing the projects and farms land his great-grandfather homesteaded in 1911. "If we stop them, we can save ourselves and maybe the world."

The application to build the railroad remains under review. 

Megaloads

Six hundred miles to the west, in the burly forests of the Bitterroot Mountains, environmentalists, Native Americans, business owners and local residents fought the trucking of huge mining equipment headed north to the tar sands in Canada.

Scores of three-story-tall, 250-foot-long modules called megaloads were to be rolled along a twisting two-lane highway through the Lolo National Forest. Before an Idaho judge ruled in September to stop the shipments, some in Montana howled over the precedent they would set for the land.

"The concern is, once you open up the door, what else are they going to bring up that will violate the earth?" said Brock Conway, 45, a member of the Blackfeet Indian tribe. He protested the megaloads by marching in Montana and traveling to New York City to sing traditional songs in front of the United Nations building.

Susan Estep, a Missoula resident, helped file a lawsuit forcing the megaloads to take a different route.

"The industrialization of any wild and scenic place," she said, "goes against the aesthetic of the West."

The detour threads through other parts of Oregon, Idaho and Montana before ending in Alberta. Protesters gathered last week at the megaloads' starting point in Oregon.  

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter