By Jonathan Jones and Stephen Smith, Reveal and Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press
Across the country, states are moving to renewable energy – but Montana is doubling down on fossil fuels.
Montana has a long history of making money by extracting and exporting its natural resources, namely coal. State politicians and Montana’s largest electricity utility company seem set on keeping it that way.
Reveal’s Jonathan Jones travels to the town of Colstrip in the southeastern part of the state. It is home to one of the largest coal seams in the country – and one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the West. He learns that the state has signed off on a massive expansion of the coal mine that feeds the plant and that Montana’s single largest power company, NorthWestern Energy, has expanded its stake in the plant, even though it’s the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gas in Montana. Jones speaks with Colstrip’s mayor about the importance of coal mining to the local community. He also speaks to local ranchers and a tribal official who’ve been working for generations to protect the water and land from coal development.
Jones follows the money to the state’s capital, where lawmakers have passed one of the most extreme laws to keep the state from addressing climate change. He meets with plaintiffs involved in a first-of-its-kind youth-led lawsuit who are suing Montana for violating their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment.” Jones dives into lobbying records behind a flurry of bills that are keeping the state reliant on fossil fuels. He also finds that NorthWestern is planning to build a new methane gas plant on the banks of the Yellowstone River, and the company is being met with resistance from people who live near the site and from state courts.
Finally, Jones visits the state’s largest wind farm and speaks with a renewable energy expert, who says Montana can close its coal plants, never build a new gas plant and transition to 100% clean energy while reducing electricity costs for consumers. He also speaks with NorthWestern’s CEO and looks at other coal communities in transition.