Morgan Krakow: Intentional Detours

Morgan Krakow

The American way is innovation. Lightbulbs, modern democracy, telegraphs, the postal service – the U.S. spirit of progress has plastered the nation’s history. And in many ways, the American West finds itself at the forefront of today’s innovative spirit, rooted in the longstanding values of frontier, exploration and a departure from the everyday.

Swap Edison for Bezos, the Pony Express for Gmail, and you’ll most likely find yourself somewhere along the central to northern California coast: Silicon Valley. You might end up also in L.A., Portland, or Seattle. These startup hubs are leading the way to an easier and cleaner future. So why then, in a class about climate change and renewable energy, do we find ourselves between mile marker 125 and 126 along highway 12 wolfing down couscous and showering for the first time in a week? It’s because there’s a whole other American innovator who doesn’t sip $6 lattes or check Twitter more than they go outside (regrettably, I often fall into the former category). Out here, off the busy interstates and narrow shoulders, along ranchland that calls to mind a Thomas Hart Benton piece, sprawling widely across the horizon, there’s a crop of people who are living and breathing the spirit of American innovation.

On this trip we have met and been hosted by a variety of people who believe in rural risk taking, and disobeying status quos. We met ranchers and landowners who have passive solar homes, like Steve Charter and Jean Wallace, coal miners whose work powers parts of South Korea and Japan. The miners feed their families and take part in the community of their workplace. We met Hutterites using top-of-the-line farming technology and we met climate activists in the small Montana towns. Everywhere we looked, innovation felt inherent in our conversations – new ways to burn coal, homes that didn’t need the grid anymore, renewable energy fairs in the 1970s that helped jumpstart the early environmental movement.

We arrived at Steve Charter’s ranch on a day that felt like the sun was just a little too close to our shoulders. We washed our hands in his sink and set up camp around back. Starting our grilled cheese feast, he and his friend John took the time to talk to us about Steve’s ranchland and the sustainable farming methods they had been incorporating into their soil process.

Then, Steve told us about the early days. He spoke about the 1970’s and forming the Northern Plains Resource Council, an organization that fights coal and allies ranchers to lobby the legislature. Being a rancher on land that has mineable coal is no easy task, and often it takes a level of innovation and trust in self-reliance to fight the battle.

In 1980 Steve and his wife Jeanne built a passive solar home. Almost everyone told them it was impossible. No YouTube videos or Google searches to aid in the process – just a couple of library books and strong will.

It’s hard to be an innovator, Steve explained to me as we sat on different portions of a sawed up tree trunk overlooking a sloping grassland below. The innovator takes the risk and often doesn’t reap the financial reward, but they’ve paved a path. Steve has paved many paths. He’s in the process of setting up a vermiculture business toward more fertile soil, and has led a life against coal companies and land degradation, in hopes of making a more sustainable world for his grandchildren who live just up the hill.

This trip changes how the brain works. The constant cycling, waking up with the sun, and shifting worries from career and grades to effective Shotblock rationing and how best to care for extreme heat rash has left me a lot of time for reflection. Over the last 9 or so days, I’ve tried to spend time thinking about the type of journalist I want to be, and less about the type of career I need to have. I’ve become less future-oriented. I’ve stopped monitoring every move for maximal hiring potential. Instead, I’m finding myself living minute to minute. And I’m enjoying it.

I’m surprised by how intrigued I am by rural and small-town America. I love the phenomenon of innovation in a place that can get slogged into a singular category of old and dated in a national narrative. As I continue to reflect, I find that I am drawn to these places.

It’s easy to get caught up in fads as a storyteller. The Tesla-driving entrepreneurs of my generation are on the future’s forefront. They’re my friends. They create helpful apps, love the outdoors and big cities. They’re all over the science and tech section of every major newspaper and magazine. Young people living in major cities seem to be creating a bigger, better and more sustainable tomorrow at every moment. But for me, true storytelling will deviate from these narratives.

This trip is a lesson in view finding. When everyone else seems to be flocking to a shiny gadget or app, I’ll be taking a detour off the major highway and onto a dirt road far from a Starbucks or Apple store, with shorter lines and quieter alleys. The best stories of American innovation sometimes happen where everyone seems to be overlooking. While I might not be able to hitch onto a bike and send it to rural Montana for every story, I’ll take the lessons I’ve learned from the pace and space of this trip long into my career.

P.S. if anyone reading this hears about job openings for bike-bound journalists, give me a call.

Claire Longcope: To Know a Place

claire 2

What a way to get to know a place! As we grilled local bison burgers last night, I was telling Melissa, one of our generous hosts in Choteau, about our trip. She said she bets we are getting to know the state of Montana better than a lot of Montanans do. We would probably need some more time here to really get to know the culture of different Montanan towns (likely requiring some off-course time in the bars). However, it seems like we’ve gotten a pretty full perspective on the state’s energy systems.

The education we’ve gotten on the topic of energy was made possible by the multi-faceted educational approach that WRFI has set out for us. In our 472 pages reader that we each drag across the state, we read opinion articles, energy reports, novel excerpts, and even journalistic articles by our own instructor, Matt Frank. We give Matt a hard time for including 75+ pages of his writing that we’re assigned to read, but I think that having our course leaders be so engaged in the issues we’re learning about is one of the coolest part of this course. This trip in some ways has felt like we’re collecting a big set of data and research for a journal article.

I’ve been amazed by the effectiveness of the structure of this course. The most influential part for me so far has been meeting with people with all sorts of perspectives on these issues. We had a discussion with a self-proclaimed environmentalist who is passionately “pro-coal” due to her devotion to her coal-dependent small town of Roundup. We were treated to breakfast by Alan Olson, the executive director of Montana Petroleum Association, at Jorgenson’s- the place where (rumor has it) the big-wigs meet in the bar to make under-the-radar plans for new legislation. We sat in a snazzy meeting room in the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and discussed their recently released “Blueprint for Montana’s Energy Future” and the possible return of the Clean Power Plan. Later that afternoon, we heard from Anne Hedges of Montana Environmental Information Center about their lawsuit filed against the DEQ. I don’t know of a time other than on a WRFI course that I’d have the opportunity to meet with such a variety of influential figures in the industry we are studying. I’ll keep this in mind in future research projects of my own as an important way to gather multiple people’s perspectives. Despite the potentially differing political or ethical views between the people in our meetings, every discussion has been pleasant and informative.

Anyway, we’re getting to know Montana energy pretty well. Actually, it’s to a point where my knowledge of what’s going on in the energy industry in Maine — the state I call home — is feeling pretty lame. While I feel a deep connection to the place itself due to time spent exploring certain areas of coastline and weaving through the Eastern Hemlocks and Balsam Firs  in Maine’s forests, maybe it’s time to take a bike tour across the whole state and see what I’m missing out on. For example, I recently learned that 26% of Maine’s electricity generation comes from biomass- I’d like to find out more about the wood products that are being burned. What part of trees is most often burned? Are they doing anything to offset the damage done by cutting down trees- such as planting new ones? By the time these new trees sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, will it be too late? These are just a few of the questions I have about Maine’s renewable energy, and I’d like to look into the answers by chatting with people across the state. After Cycle the Rockies, maybe I’ll have the confidence to take Shwayze (my beloved Trek 520 touring bike) for another spin in a whole new part of the country.

Olivia Walcott: The Answer’s in Empathy

Olivia post 2

“Empathy trumps psychology every time”

– quote written on Steve Charter’s kitchen whiteboard by his late wife.

It is especially easy to feel defeated as an environmentalist. We’re frantic for a short and sweet answer to the complex and urgent matter of climate change. At times, it feels as though the cards are already stacked against us, that there is not any world left to save. When entrenched in the study of all the different ways our environment is speeding towards disaster, I don’t know what fight to fight. But I do want to fight for something. I want to fight for a clean earth and a healthy environment, but can I manage that and not destroy the lives of the good employees at Signal Peak Coal Mine? How can I ensure that no more environmental injustice is done to those in poverty? How can I do that and maintain empathy for my fellow humans and not vilify others? I believe that is what makes the quote in Steve Charter’s kitchen so striking. I understand the greenhouse effect, rate of consumption of our natural resources and the data behind our changing climate, but all of this scientific understanding is pointless unless it’s put to use. Empathy for our fellow people will be the greatest tool we have in the environmental movement.

The complexity of the environmental movement is absolutely overwhelming, but at the same time I suppose that is what makes it empowering. The more I learn, the more questions I end up asking, a dichotomy that leads to nothing but a deeper understanding of the problem at hand.

The issue I find the most intriguing (and frustrating) is fracking. The development of horizontal fracking has driven the price of natural gas so low that it’s outcompeting coal. In some ways, the low price of natural gas can take credit for the closing of coal-fired power plants and blocked permits for new coal mines. Natural gas could act as our “blue bridge” into the future of renewable and clean energy. Currently, there is not the battery capacity to have a grid completely powered by solar and wind energy. These renewables fluctuate with the weather so the energy pushed onto the grid is uneven. The argument made for natural gas is that we will use it now, and then phase it out as we transition into the renewable future. However, this argument doesn’t account for the lack of regulations on fracking that can lead to destroyed aquifers, acres of farmland poisoned by saline water spills, and the correlation between fracking and seismic activity.

I find it difficult to support fracking when it’s causing more environmental damage, even though that’s what it’s supposed to be saving us from. I can’t imagine that pumping chemicals deep underground would ever have a net benefit to our earth. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel filled with hydrocarbons that are more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Additionally, we’re witnessing first hand with coal how difficult it is to “phase out” an entire industry so maybe the same fight is waiting down the road with natural gas.

When weighing the costs and benefits to the issue of fracking, a few speakers from our course come to mind. I think of Nicole Borner of Roundup, Montana, a county commissioner who supports the coal industry in her area. When we explained the Cycle the Rockies course to her she eagerly asked if we would be trying to come up with a solution. Steve Charter was actually the person that recommended that we speak with Nicole. She had published an op-ed (found here) about the damage it would do to her community if the Signal Peak Coal Mine shut down. Nicole is a self-proclaimed environmentalist but supports coal due to the large portion of tax revenue it brings to her stagnant community. Steve had read her op-ed and approached her to discuss the issue as his ranch is at risk of being undermined by the coal mine. In the end, the two were able to have a civil conversation on the topic despite the large difference of opinion.

When we had breakfast with Elizabeth Wood and her husband Wilbur the day after meeting with Nicole, Elizabeth pointedly asked how we would go about creating the change the environment so desperately needed. This, along with Nicole’s search for a solution, are both huge questions that I don’t feel qualified to give a concrete answer. But I can work at an answer. I suppose that it would circle back to the quote on the whiteboard written more than five years ago: “Empathy trumps psychology every time.” Every time people with differing views are able to come to the table and share what our changing environment will mean to them, we get a little bit closer to a solution. In the future, I believe that caring for our earth and fellow people will create the progress that we all continue to search for.

Seth Yoder: Is natural gas the key to renewable energy? Or will it make the transition tougher?

seth

The last time I sat down at a computer was about 400 miles ago and a lot has happened since then. We cycled north to the small town of Roundup and took Route 12 west across central Montana, eventually on our way to Helena where we spent a few nights. After Helena we headed north to the Holter Dam, an organic farm in Fort Shaw, and a 4th of July I’ll never forget in Choteau. The Rocky Mountain Front has given us rolling hills that have challenged us as much as the wind did on the plains. I’m ready to eat lunches that consist of more than flour tortillas, cheese, and tuna! Though I have eaten a lot healthier on this trip, except for after 50-mile days when I eat six spoonfuls of Nutella. We have eaten fairly well for a month long camping trip if you ask me.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen everything from the high intensity machinery of the Signal Peak coal mine, to the rows and rows of wind turbines at the Judith Gap wind farm, to agencies and nonprofits in Helena working on energy issues. It’s incredibly complex, this transition afoot toward renewable energy sources.

Key to that transition is natural gas. It’s viewed by many as a “bridge” fuel. And, as we learned while visiting NorthWestern Energy, it’s used to flatten out, so to speak, the inherent volatility of wind energy and, increasingly, solar.

The technology of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) combined with horizontal drilling has made natural gas cheaper than coal, which is a primary reason behind the coal industry’s struggles, as we saw at Signal Peak, where dozens of workers were recently laid off. Natural gas has its advantages, but it also poses risks.

Burning natural gas releases half the CO2 of burning coal, so it can help us reach targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the country. But there are a whole bunch of negative impacts that come along with it. With casing malfunctions of wells, drinking water can be affected in shallower wells. We read about a study by Stanford University scientists that found shallow fracking wells had a clear impact on underground drinking water sources. Fracking also leads to methane pollution. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Lastly, in a University of Texas study researchers linked injection of the wastewater back into the wells with earthquakes. Granted, this isn’t fracking itself but it is a practice that is very common with the overall production of natural gas and oil.

Will our increased dependence on natural gas prove to be a bridge, or will we remain hooked? We learned at Judith Gap that storage—batteries like Tesla’s—are being used to help wind farms deliver more consistent energy. If storage technology continues to advance, perhaps natural gas won’t be needed as much when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

As the bike tour moves west, the scenery is getting more and more beautiful but that means the hills are getting that much bigger. As I said before, it’s been challenging, but well worth the longer days. I’m excited to get up to Glacier National Park and experience some jaw dropping scenery and hopefully get to some cooler temperatures as we learn more about climate change.

Claire Longcope: Where the Rubber (Literally) Hits the Road

claire

Bikes along the barbed wire at Steve Charter’s ranch in Shepard, MT

I’ve been stuffed full of new information in the last few days. New terms, acronyms, concepts, as well as new people, places, and a new activity: bike touring. It’s a good kind of stuffed, though, and I’m excited for more. Here’s a bit about two of the things that have stuck with me the most so far:

Montana is “where the rubber hits the road” in terms of coal reserves.

Fitting isn’t it, that we’re biking across the state where the rubber hits the road? My eyes have been opened up to the scale and importance of the issues we’re learning about. One quarter of U.S. coal is under Montana, with a bunch of the rest of it spread across the border into Wyoming. Other things I didn’t know: The coal here burns a lot less “dirty” (more efficiently) than the coal of Appalachia. And, the reserves of Montana are largely owned by the government. I also learned that “Colstrip” is not just a coal-strip, but a town that that is home to a mine-mouth power plant. We didn’t visit Colstrip, but its future is a topic on the minds of so many we visit with. Colstrip is the 8th largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the Unites States. Contributing to that pollution is the leaking of the coal ash/waste ponds, which have been leaking 300 gallons per minute of toxic “water” under Colstrip for 22 years. This is expected to be a big issue as coal plants are decommissioned. Organizers Mike Scott and Alexis Bonogofsky, who hosted us for three nights, are trying to make sure Colstrip is cleaned up by its several owners and not by taxpayers. Brings me back to the class I took this spring about the nexus of energy, economics, and the environment, where my professor would remind us nearly every class: “There is no free lunch.”

Sometimes things tilt in the universe. Don’t give up.

Teresa Erickson, director of the Northern Plains Resource Council, based in Billings, Montana, has spent 30 years fighting for what she believes in. It wasn’t until recently that things started going her way. Along with hard work by her and her colleagues, Erickson attributed the decrease in coal demand to “something tilt[ing] in the universe.” I liked that saying, and in the future I expect to ascribe things in my life being due to the “tilting of the universe.” It could be a positive or negative tilt, I guess.

Northern Plains Resource Council is now celebrating their win in the battle against the proposed Tongue River Railroad and Otter Creek coal mine it would have served. Several times Erickson referenced the lack of attention her region of the country gets in regards to their well-being while located in a coal-heavy area: “No one gives a sh*t about eastern Montana,” she said bluntly.

In talking with Erickson it was clear how interconnected her passion and her job are. Near the end of our meeting, she described some of the lessons she’s learned over her time as a community organizer. A few of them didn’t come as a surprise: “Justice doesn’t come from doing nothing.” “Being positive or negative is contagious.” “Hope is not a strategy.” Others, however, were almost shocking to me. She is not quite a believer in the “there is good in everyone” mantra. Instead, she said it’s okay to have enemies, seek power, and to make sure to claim credit when it’s due. I didn’t know what to think. Initially, I was thrown off by these ideas, but remind myself now that these are strategies for activism, and I’m left very impressed and inspired by her well-earned confidence and insight.

I can’t wait to see the places this course will take us over the next 20 days.

 

Olivia Walcott: From Michigan to Montana: My Crash Course in Montana’s Energy Industries

Oliva blog

Passion will take you to the wildest places. Exactly one year ago I was returning from orientation at Northern Michigan University. My mind was filled with trivial things like dorm room color schemes. Today, I found myself in eastern Montana trying to convince a bike loaded down with a month’s worth of gear to climb yet another hill. I have quickly discovered that biking gives you lots of time to reflect. Between wind noise and traffic whipping past conversation is not really an option. Honestly, even if there had been no traffic or breeze I don’t believe I could’ve managed a conversation while gasping for breath. So during today’s 27 miles my mind was filled with the obscureness of the situation I have so willingly thrown myself in.

When I signed up for the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s Cycle the Rockies course I had never been to Montana, never bike toured, and my camping experience was limited to weekend excursions and car camping. Heck, when I paid my tuition for the course I didn’t even have a working bicycle. Now I am four days into this trip with roughly 670 miles laying before me. As much as I look forward to the biking and camping ahead, this is an academic course. So in the past 82 hours I have received a crash course in Montana’s coal industry, utility business and environmental activism.

As a native Michigander, coal is somewhat of a theoretical natural resource to me. I know that I’m dependent on coal for electricity. I know that a transition to solar and wind power are needed to cut carbon emissions. However, never before have I considered the impacts of domestic and global coal markets, railroads, bankrupt corporations giving executives golden parachutes. There’s enough jargon and complex policy to make your head spin. I often found myself wondering how on earth someone who lives in Montana — someone with a full-time job and family to take care of — stays informed and active on the so many energy-related issues here.

Today, the coal industry is on the ropes. The largest companies, many of which operate in the Powder River Basin, in Montana and Wyoming, have filed for bankruptcy. Coal is piling up at mines because it can’t be sold profitably. Coal-fired power plants are shutting down left and right due to cheaper natural gas and the steady growth of renewables.

The sun continues to shine and the wind is always blowing somewhere. I understand that I need coal to form the steel that makes my bike frame that allows me to ride 700 miles through Montana and study energy production, consumption and policies in the field. However, there needs to be a plan in place for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. That is the way that the markets and energy industries are going. We need solar power and wind turbines scattered throughout the landscape so energy is always going onto the grid.

For right now, my mind is filled with thoughts about what I can do to encourage the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy resources so energy-rich places like Montana can move beyond crippling boom-and-bust cycles and protect this landscape. I have hope, maybe only because at 19 years old I am still foolishly optimistic. I am confident in the people’s passion for environmental change that is stopping useless railways from being built, renewing the soil, protecting the aquifers and keeping corporations accountable for their environmental impacts.

Matt Neer: Wide Angle Views of Climate Change

Matt Neer Blog 1Arguably the most pressing issue we face today as a society is climate change. OK, actually it is the the most pressing issue, no argument needed. But before we go rushing off all willy nilly let’s take a quick look at some of the logistics and scope of climate change and its bedmate energy.

When we say “climate change” we are talking about the global climate. Not just the local weather. While local topography and weather can be divided up into micro climates and zones, and many of those will experience the effects of climate change, the problem of climate change is a global problem. A problem that we should attempt  to view as a whole.

How then should we approach climate change and mitigation? First we should examine energy and its role in our lives.Once we have a picture of energy we need to look at the environment and the results of our actions. Then we can look for an area of interest or skill through which we can effect possible change.

Once we have that frame of reference we need to appreciate the role energy, both production and use, has had on human development. As many economists  point out, prior to the Industrial Revolution the standard of living for humanity remained basically unchanged for millennia. Then we started to burn coal in an industrial fashion. With that transition brought lights, heat, cooling, refrigerators, and a myriad of technological developments. These advancements have extended human life, increased comfort and our safety.

The majority of human economics is now centered around the production, distribution, and consumption of energy. In the United States the energy industry employees 500,000 workers and makes up 2.3% of GDP. This comes in at a cool $910 billion industry.

On our journey pedaling through Montana studying energy and climate change we’ve interacted with both environmental organizations and energy providers. One of these providers, Northwestern Energy, services much of Montana, a portion of South Dakota and Nebraska. They employ 1,273 workers in Montana and, in all three states, service 700,000 customers through 27,900 miles of electrical lines and 9,575 miles of natural gas pipelines. We  are used to just pushing a button or flipping a switch. Energy  generation and its surrounding economy are just too big of a portion of the economy to simply alter overnight.

To get there will take years of effort, organization and education. In the Powder River basin in Montana, plans to develop coal reserves that included an entirely new railroad spur have finally, after 40 years, been put to rest. The development of Otter Creek coal and the Tongue River Railroad that would have serviced it were nixed by rapid decline in demand for coal, largely due to cheap natural gas, and staunch opposition from landowners in southeastern Montana. This protects many Northern Cheyenne burial grounds, stops countless tons of CO2 emissions, and protects acres and acres of open pasture land and the water needed for livestock.

An interesting byproduct of this fight has been the building of a community in the Powder River Basin that includes groups that historically have felt at odds. The member-driven Northern Plains Resource Council and organizers such as Alexis Bonogofsky and Mike Scott, over the course of many years, countless meetings (before agencies or over a cup of coffee) brought together ranchers with their desire to protect property rights and maintain grazing and water for their herds, environmentalists, and the Northern Cheyenne to face a common enemy.

North of Billings we find the Charter Ranch. Steve Charter is also a member of NPRC. But he couples his organizational duties with research to look for solution. While fighting to protect his land from undermining on one front, Steve Charter is beginning to experiment with soil betterment in the hope of speeding up plant succession to repair damaged grazing land. That alone is a multifaceted problem he is approaching with composting, vermiculture (worms for us laypeople), and experimental and diverse crops. The end result will hopefully include increased carbon sequestration in the soil, with the  twofold effect of CO2 removal and increased productivity

Whew! Climate change is huge, and we didn’t even look at alternative energy. No wonder so many throw up their hands in despair. But if we take a moment and appreciate the scope we can likely find a niche for all of us to fill. Like a giant buffet that we surly can’t eat all of we can defiantly find a plateful to consume.