Hannah Plowright: Mining for common ground

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Cycle the Rockies students tour the Corette coal-fired power plant, which will be mothballed next year.

In theory, some of our speakers would seem to be bashing heads in terms of what they are trying to achieve and who they are trying to help. The tour of the Corette coal-fired power plant, the Charter ranch, Alexis Bonogofsky and Mike Scott who work for National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club, respectively. These are some of things we’ve done and people we’ve listened to so far, and they all shed unique light on the topic of energy. But I believe that at the heart of it, they share core values.

For starters, I saw that all the people we’ve met with so far are extremely dedicated to what they do. At the Corette plant, we met people that had worked there for 30-plus years. Over that time, there seems to have developed a culture of pride in the plant. Our tour guide, Bobbi, clearly demonstrated that, with her unrelenting enthusiasm and honesty. She’s an engineer with deep understanding of all of the equipment, and joked about some of the especially temperamental pieces of machinery and their nicknames. Bobbi has formed friendships with her coworkers, stopping to talk with everyone. She’s a relatively new employee of nine years, compared to others who’ve worked there for more than 30. There’s a real sense of community at the plant. When we asked about the plant being mothballed, Bobbi said the morale among workers is very low.

The plant is closing due to new Clean Air Act regulations going into effect next year. They’ll require a device called a “bag house” to catch the pollutants released during the coal-burning process, costing around $38 million, funds which PPL is not willing to invest given the current wholesale power prices, according to news reports. Unfortunately for Corette employees, they’ll have to find jobs elsewhere, which is upsetting because many of them have dedicated a large part of their life in making that plant succeed. Bobbi also speaks with some bitterness about how she might lose her friends who are moving on from Billings.

Alexis and Mike also have dedicated a huge amount of time and energy to their work. For the past 10 years, both have worked tirelessly to help organize rural and native communities in fighting coal development. Alexis and Mike drive for hours to talk to people face-to-face, one-on-one. This is a tactic not many activists are willing to take because it is hard and a huge time commitment, but it’s important, and couldn’t be done if Alexis and Mike weren’t extremely passionate about what they do. They spend that extra time getting to know these communities and building relationships and coalitions.

Rancher Steve Charter is also extremely dedicated to protecting and sustaining his land and rural way of life. Not only is his house meticulously designed to be energy efficient, including composting toilets, but his cattle actually offset carbon emissions. He doesn’t weed, or shoot out the prairie dogs. He tries to keep the land as close to its natural state as possible for his cattle, which he rotates on smaller lots. These short and intense grazing methods have recently become a major topic for those interested in offsetting carbon emissions with increasing organic matter, something that these cattle naturally create a lot of. Steve’s family has been fighting coal development in the Bull Mountains, where its cattle graze in the summer, for decades.

This passion and dedication to work seems to be derived from an instinctual need to take care of community, community meaning friends, family, and neighbors. With Alexis and Mike it’s kind of obvious, but with the the employees at the Corette plant their passion and dedication to their jobs might not be directly correlated to industry itself but with the things that come with the job: working with life-long friends, having a steady paycheck for their families. All things to preserve and maintain a healthy community.

Unfortunately, coal-burning power plants in our country have a huge environmental impact, producing around 400,000 tons of CO2 a year, polluting waterways, and releasing toxic emissions such as sulfur dioxide and mercury into the air, which cause asthma, cancers, and many other diseases. It gets very confusing to know how to act on these issues knowing that on either end, people’s livelihoods are at stake. To Steve, Alexis, and Mike, it seems that care for the community is directly connected with the environment, but there seems to be a degree of separation from that mindset when it comes to the employees working at Corette who are just trying to maintain support for their families. When we talked to those employees, they said that they do want to protect the environment, but to what extent? It’s the balance that our speakers disagree on.

I spent a lot of time being upset at energy development and the level of fossil fuel consumption that’s brought about climate change. But I’m now coming to a place where I actually empathize with the workers at plants like Corette. Knowing that we are all ultimately coming from the same good intention of wanting to do what’s best for our loved ones, I find it very hard to hold the same amount of frustration I once did. In moving forward on climate change mitigation, I hope that folks on all sides of the issue can find more empathy for one another to start making a difference.

– Hannah Plowright

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