Earl Clark: Solutions are not Simple

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After a thoroughly educational talk with Mike Scott, a farmer from Billings, about the effects of an oil spill on his land and the surrounding community, we went inside his relative’s house to watch a film.  On screen we’d see a younger version of Mike and his wife Alexis from seven years prior when they were impacted by Exxon’s pipeline break on the Yellowstone River in southern Montana.  Less than one percent of the 63,000 gallons of crude were recovered, and Mike is still trying to get his land back into farming shape all these years later. I thought they would be making a one-time appearance in the film, but they’re actually interspersed throughout “This Changes Everything”: a documentary that looks into different communities around the world and their relationship with fossil fuels and renewables.

I had never heard of the film and would rather have been sightseeing Billings on the touring bike, but that was not on the agenda of the day.  As we sat down and started watching the film, it was apparent from the beginning by its quality that it was one of those blockbuster environmental documentaries that tend to streamline complex issues and present a singular narrative.

Immediately I became apprehensive to the proceeding time the film would occupy, yet the film got off to a solid start with an insightful presentation of the tar sands in Alberta.  I was previously unaware of the size of the operation so this was good insight. The film continues, and subsequently arrives to Mike Scott’s farm and shows him traversing his land with his wife after the spill.  It was a bit surreal to see the man on screen we had just met with, and it was valuable to see the situation from this angle.  The visual documentation added depth since we’re so far removed from the situation years later.  It’s through a screen, but seeing the situation as it occurred gives a more personal experience than listening to someone talk or reading an article.

Unfortunately the film proceeds to gradually fall into the trap that these blockbuster enviro-docs do.  We’re given a superhero narrative.  Fossil fuels become the bad guy and renewables the good guy.  Simplicity enters and complexities exit.

Really these films seem to have a predisposition to draw a conclusion before filming begins; fossil fuels are the devil and renewables the savior; renewables are perfect beings that can do no wrong.  This thought process is quite unlike the amateur student documentary we watched, “Battle of the Bulls: A Conflict in Cattle Country.”  In this film, one-on-one screen time is split between the rancher and the coal miner, both receiving plenty of camera time, and the coal miner isn’t painted  with broad brushstrokes through footage and techniques that serve to smear his morality.  In “This Changes Everything,” whenever fossil fuel footage is shown, ominous and foreboding music plays while upbeat music cues for renewables. People with relations to the fossil fuel side are presented as aloof, sinister characters.  Between interviews, gratuitous shots of people in poverty are thrown in, and we see protesters shot dead by police.  Furthermore, should someone do something that the audience could perceive as objectionable, it will be a prime focus on camera.  For example, we see a worker in Canada blow his nose into currency and the camera really zooms in during the town hall meeting when the VIP’s are on their phones. There also seems to be a lack of transparency here, as the tar sands workers seem to think they’re on reality tv, and it’s hard to tell if they know they’re being interviewed for this documentary.

So the big danger of these blockbuster enviro-docs is that complex subjects are stripped down to black and white.  The answer to the problem is simple, easy, and given, and was decided before any filming began.  This is problematic because global issues are far from simple and don’t have simple solutions.  Film is a highly visual medium, which is good for transmitting scale, emotions, and animated diagrams of the ways things work, such as the longwall mining in “Battle for the Bulls,” but is less suitable for transmitting facts and presenting multiple sides of a subject objectively.  Visuals are highly interpretive while text is not so.  Film synthesizes vast amounts of information, so the audience is unaware of what is left out or what was selectively chosen to be included.  A well-informed citizen reads articles and does research.  He does not simply get the gist from headlines and talking heads on tv.  Moreover, after a portion of the public has been exposed to these films, they buy into the repeatedly drawn conclusion and believe they’ve been empowered with the answer.  Consequently, they become close-minded and are unwilling to have their viewpoint challenged, furthering division.


Emi Okitsu: I don’t have a chocolate, can I have yours?

Emi Blog 1 photo 2While biking up the hill in Eastern Montana, I thought about my arrival to the United States three years ago. Now I am studying energy issues and climate change while I bike from Billings, MT to Glacier National Park with nine of my classmates. The Wild Rockies Field Institute offers a course called Cycle the Rockies, which seems to be one of the most challenging hills in my college life.

I can see my classmates far away. I only can hear my heavy breath and a sound of the wind. I pedaled harder to catch up with them, but my legs are almost out of energy. Yesterday, we stayed at the beautiful ranch near Billings, Montana. Three dogs came up to us to say hi every morning. The beautiful sunset was the one of the most memorable moments in this trip. I wish I could camp there a little longer. Ranchers in the area are afraid of the ground collapsing due to underground coal mining. This type of mining is risky for ranchers who have natural resources below their land. Additionally, ranchers are concerned about how the coal extraction process will impact their aquifer. These problems can cause issues for human and cattle, and secondary disasters such as accidents on the collapsed land. I have enough time to contemplate many things while I’m biking, so I ask myself, “What is the best solution?” Shifting to renewable energy sounds like a strong candidate. But is the solution that simple?

If you bike in a group, a person who can bike faster leads the rest of group members. The person in the front becomes a windbreak for the next person, and the next person helps the next person to break wind and so on. So you can pedal easily if you are close to someone. But once you fall behind the group, you get the wind on whole your body resulting in more and more distance from your group. Now, I can barely see my classmates. It is a windy day. I need energy to keep pedaling to the top of this hill. I need to eat a cho-coal-ate at next stop but unfortunately I don’t have any. It seems like my classmates are waiting for me on the top of the hill. After this steep hill, there is our destination, Signal Peak Coal Mine, the only underground coal mine in Montana.

A tour inside of the facilities of Signal Peak Energy required us to wear very heavy steel-toed boots. Ninety-eight percent of Signal Peak’s coal products go to Asia, especially, to China, South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, where I was born and raised. These countries are rapidly climbing up the hill of development. Signal Peak Coal Mine and other energy resources are windbreakers for these countries. The reason why some Asian countries cannot climb up the hill alone is because of their low self-sufficiency ratio of energy supply. Japanese self-sufficiency ratio of energy supply was only 8.3 percent in 2016. This is a really low number compared to Norway which has 702.6 percent of self-sufficient energy. Japan has some nuclear power plants in its own country, however, the nuclear power generation decreased from 11.2 percent to 0.8 percent between 2010 and 2016. This decline of generation happened because of the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima after the earthquake in 2011. Dependency on imports of coal, oil, and natural gas increased more and more in Japan. Seven years since the earthquake happened sounds like a long time has passed for me, but the energy issue doesn’t seem to be developing quickly.

I can’t stop thinking about the ranchers around Signal Peak Coal Mine after I learned that only two percent of Signal Peak’s coal is used in the United States. Do those ranchers suffer for 98 percent exporting coal? For Asian countries? For my friends and family? This happens not only in Montana, but also many other states and countries which provide energy resources to the world.

So what is the best solution? I couldn’t come up with anything while I was biking from Signal Peak coal mine to our next destination. It is a complex international issue. To make a change in coal industries, coal demands also need to be changed. I believe that increasing the renewable energy generation and decreasing the non-renewable energy generation in Asian countries will change the United States’ coal mining production eventually. To make it happen, we need development of new technology of more efficient renewable energy generation and energy storage.


Cory Couture: Chemical Dependency

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How long can you go without a cup of coffee? Tea? Red Bull? Do you get headaches if you miss your morning cup of coffee? If so, you are chemically dependent. A chemical dependency can take many forms like drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and in my experience, fossil fuels like coal. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a whopping 30% of the United States’ energy is produced by coal burning. In Montana, coal has had tremendous success as a global coal exporter and has helped grow small communities where a population dependent industry such as retail would fail.

I recently visited Signal Peak Coal mine and was able to learn about the various processes that go into coal mining. The handful of employees I talked to were more than thankful for the coal company. Signal Peak provides relatively high paying jobs with fair shifts. They even won awards for their outstanding safety record with their last accident occurring five years ago; an employee slipped on ice in the parking lot and twisted a knee, an injury independent of the mining process. College students are also given the opportunity to take summer jobs with lofty wages between semesters.

Following the visit to this mine, I had the honor to stay at St. Benedict’s Church in Roundup, Montana courtesy of the regional Knights of Columbus. The Knights and a small group of the church’s congregation raved of the development that tax revenue from Signal Peak had allowed for: old schools and public infrastructure were rebuilt or restored with the new revenue. These experiences are undoubtedly very important to Montana’s citizens, so, how can coal be a metaphor for drug abuse? Similar to a substance addiction, coal development has an innocent hook, devastating progression, and the chance for recovery that is often ignored.

What would I know about addiction or chemical dependency? I come from a small city in Upstate New York where meth and other hard drugs are prevalent. I constantly see in the news the stories of drug busts, negligent mothers abusing drugs and the most normal people overdosing. I see old friends of mine use tobacco, weed and alcohol to cope with life after high school. These unfortunate occurrences remind me of how the coal industry operates. Initially, coal mining is offered to Montana as a lucrative source of revenue. A few mines pop up and proves that to be true. So, more mines are proposed and built. Hooked. The West has now seen what coal can bring to them: wealth and development. But it’s too good to be true. The side effects of coal development can hurt local communities and property.

One of stops we made was in Shepheard, MT at a ranch owned by Steve Charter. There, I learned of the negative impact of coal exploration. The method used by many mines to attain coal is longwall mining; this process removes vast swaths of coal beneath the ground’s surface causing large scale depressions in the landscape. As the coal is removed, the ground above collapses several feet down resulting in faulting that can harm a ranch’s ability to migrate cattle and farm the land, and severely damage the ability for natural springs and wells to provide water. Moreover, toxic chemical byproducts released by the coal when burned can leach into surrounding water sources. This has not occurred at the Signal Peak mine, though nearby in the above-ground mine called Colstrip, ash holding ponds are actively leaking water with high amounts of boron, arsenic, lead and other toxic substances. Even if properly taken care of, this water has the potential to severely ruin surrounding waterways. To make matters worse, the burning of the coal unlocks ancient carbon deposits resulting in climate change and a degradation of the surrounding air quality.

Coal has similar impacts on the environment that drugs have on the body. Though, it is not too late to change. The Charters are associated with the Northern Plains Resource Council and actively oppose the expansion of coal development. Steve Charter successfully protected the Bull Mountains from some of the expansion of Signal Peak coal mines. Furthermore, he supports renewable energies and the allocation of capital for the retraining of miners to work on solar panels, windmills and other renewable energies. In recent years, the demand for coal power has drastically decreased. States that purchase power from Montana are demanding energy from renewable sources. Even the leading energy producer in Montana, Colstrip is looking to close all four of its units within the next decade. So, the allocation of support and resources to promote coal companies by both the public and national government is supporting a failing industry; in the long run, this would do more harm than good as it inhibits the advancement of renewable technology and further damages the global climate.

Thus, Montana should completely remove itself from the fossil fuel industry, right? Unfortunately, no. Addictions are difficult to get over. In my experience, the more force and pressure an individual experiences, the lower the chance of successful recovery. If this is also true for the conversion of a state or country to renewable energies, then this issue of fossil fuel dependency gains several levels of complexity. If not done correctly, the removal of Montana’s coal industry could result in many individuals without wages or insurance equivocal to those provided by coal companies like Signal Peak. It’s possible that people would have to sell their homes in towns with drastically falling populations and relocate.

As a stark supporter of renewable energy, I believed that we must rapidly end the use of fossil fuels. By spending just one week in Montana, I have learned more than I thought possible and discovered that I have been naive about the truth of the West’s coal dependency. I aim to use the journey ahead of me here in Montana to grow my understanding of how we can end the West’s chemical dependency.


Wyatt Zahringer: The Insanity of Energy Production

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The title of this blog should be a good indicator of what is about to come. And yes, I am going to provide you with the definition of insanity. Insanity is doing something over and over again while expecting different results. Some might even say this about both the coal industry and environmentalists. One side believes that if we have a resource in the ground that is to be used, we should use it. Why would this be an option when we know the environmental costs of coal mining and emissions from energy production with the use of coal? On the other hand environmentalists see this as humans overstepping their boundaries as we try to bring the Earth to its knees in hopes that we will someday control it.

I also think that a form of insanity comes along with the task of dismantling careers that support thousands of families. The aforementioned “control” comes in the form of energy production. Something that is important in a world that has a population that is ever growing. The topic of energy production casts a wide shadow with many stones to be overturned; which is what has brought me to the state of Montana. I choose to seek enrollment in the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s (WRFI) Cycle the Rockies course looking for some of these answers. WRFI provides exploratory educational opportunities for students to learn about these issues, as well as being able to talk to individuals who live and work in regions affected by energy production. These opportunities help to bring understanding to these people’s stories and lives in respect to energy production. Oh, one last side note… we will be riding 700 miles by way of bicycle from Billings, MT to Whitefish, MT.

Our first stop on this 700 mile journey brought our bunch to Steve Charter’s cattle ranch near Shepherd, MT. As we approached the driveway of the ranch with sweat-filled brows and sore legs, a new world opened before our eyes. Little did we know that the pungent smells that filled our noses with disgust would soon be a topic of discussion.

The next morning we were able to walk through a small section of Steve’s ranch with his colleague, John Brown, who had a vast knowledge of soil and plant biology. Little did we know what they were trying to achieve on this allotment of land in Southeastern Montana. This was not your average ranch, Steve and John, along with Steve’s two adult children, are adopting a more holistic take on agriculture. One that rivals what they called “more-on” agriculture: that type of agriculture that requires farmers to apply large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous to their fields for ample crop production. John informed us that by doing this you essentially kill off the natural organisms that should be providing plants with these nutrients. They need these grasslands to provide food for their cattle. The problem is cattle also need a solid water supply, which Steve feels could be in jeopardy because of a large coal mine near the Bull Mountains. If only I had some perspective from the individuals who work in those mines…

It just so happens that the next day of our month long journey brought us to the very mine in question, Signal Peak Energy. After a grueling uphill climb we arrived for a tour of the mine, something I had never done before. We met with our guide, Byron, one of multiple generations of workers in the mining industry, currently including his son and daughter. After swapping out tennis shoes and spandex bike shorts for steel toe boots and full body smocks we were off. He displayed the larger conveyor belts that fed the almost monster like crusher. Next, he displayed the holding stacks that fed lines which in turn packed rail cars with coal. The most memorable parts of our conversations revolved around the importance of safety and family. He stated that this mines main purpose is to provide high quality coal while not jeopardizing the safety of their employees. These were people and not the money-hungry coal miners I had envisioned less than 12 hours ago. They had mouths to feed and families to cherish, just like the Charters.

So where does all this insanity come from? Could it be that we have cornered ourselves to believe that coal miners are hell bent on destroying the Earth at the cost of the all mighty dollar? Or that we continually portray those in opposition of fossil fuels as a superhero posturing for the crowd? This makes me think of my own personal life back home in Wisconsin.

With both of my parents working in the paper industry, I have seen first-hand the effects this industry had on the waterways of my hometown. These waterways include but are not limited to the Fox River and Lake Winnebago. With a nickname like Lake Winneseptic it is hard not to be cynical towards an industry that has polluted these waters to eternity. What I would give to see what those ecosystems looked like in their prime. Nonetheless this industry has provided me with a limitless life. A roof over my head, clothes on my back, and most importantly an education. Yet, I still find myself coming to verbal blows with my father over what should be a peaceful cup of coffee. These conversations usually end with the same quote, “Don’t speak ill of something that has given you life.” This quote has flown through my head several times in different situations over the past two days.

I find myself empathetic for people I had not in the past and on the edge of my seat for more information about topics I thoroughly enjoy. Maybe the insanity is not in the production of energy, but something much bigger than that. I think that this insanity comes in the form of stereotypes of each group. When in reality we need to think of new ways to find systems that can provide clean energy that do not degrade the Earth at unsustainable levels. We also need to remember that everyone has needs and potentially have people that rely on them for those needs. Who am I to take food out of someone’s mouth while I try to make myself feel better about shutting down another “dirty” coal mine? On the other hand, who is to say that Steve and his gang do not have the right to maintain his lifestyle and a fair shake at his piece of the pie? Most importantly, when does the Earth gets its time to attempt a recovery of the scars we have left behind? When will we as a society open our eyes to the rapidly changing climate and the implications that has for the human race as a whole?

Parker Eversoll: Coal Stops Burning, yet Green Jobs Start Turning

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Photo of Harlowton, MT which was once booming due to its railroad influence from the coal mining industry. Photo credit: Stephanie Fisher

The multi-billion dollar coal industry is dying; there I said it. Many of you most likely already know that coal operations are being shut down, downsized, and once-prosperous energy moguls are filing for bankruptcy all across the United States, particularly in the Northern Plains states. Since coal is moving towards its inevitable termination over the next decade or two, the energy market’s next task will be how it replaces the electricity generation and respectable jobs that were once provided through the coal industry.

I am majoring in geoscience and environmental studies with an emphasis in renewable energy systems and resources. I have immersed myself in the transition away from coal to renewable energy with hopes to work in the renewable energy field that will be ignited from the migration away from coal. I am travelling from Billings, MT to Glacier National Park with 12 other energy and climate change enthusiasts on a touring bicycle for the next month while visiting a coal mine and camping on the outskirts of towns that have been impacted by the coal boom and bust cycle. This cycle has promoted short term prosperity, but induced long term struggle on the towns.

There is no doubt that the coal industry has been the backbone of states’ economies such as Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado for years, but due to oil and natural gas exploration and advancements, expensive and dirty coal is being replaced. While this transition may be a huge step in the correct direction to combat climate change and other issues that coal mining and burning has caused to the environment, it does mean that a large workforce will be losing their job in these Northern Plains states. While the negative environmental impact that coal has on the Earth caught my attention and influenced my career goals of working with renewables, this is not the case for many workers in the coal industry. Job loss and unemployment has become a central action point in politics, so the transition off coal will be heavily influenced by political decision making. The interests of large coal corporations center on squeezing every last penny out of the dying industry, but the job situation runs much deeper than profit return.

Towns that I visited in Montana such as Roundup and Harlowton directly stem from coal mines popping up with the potential for great profits. Since the 1970’s when coal began being used more extensively for electricity, Roundup and other nearby communities were funded almost entirely by the tax revenue created by the coal industry, including the nearby Signal Peak. Their infrastructure such as schools, municipal buildings, and roads were critical to happiness and continued residence in the town, which were often hard to come by in western mining towns. From my interactions with some residents of Roundup who grew up with the Signal Peak providing tax revenue benefits, there was almost a feeling of being indebted to the coal industry for their contributions. An elderly lady at the church where we spent a night at in Roundup expressed the appreciation she had for what the coal industry had provided her and her family. Based on the tax benefits that she had experienced, she still supported the use of coal for electricity generation. In order to make a supported transition off coal, the workers of the coal industry must be accounted for and taken care of through job security.

Most people are supportive of coal use for purely economic reasons. With growing awareness of the impact of fossil fuels, people are slowly noticing the urgency and viability of renewable resources and their potential for electricity generation. For me, a career in either thorough remediation of land impacted by the use of fossil fuels or the implementation of renewable energy systems would be ideal. Whenever I tell others about turning this passion of mine into a career, I am bombarded by people of all generations with comments about how vital this profession is to the environment and how intriguing and cutting edge the field is. Those comments are primarily coming from liberal-minded, Madison, WI community members, where I go to college, which is generally a completely different perspective from those involved in the coal industry.

It is never ideal to switch jobs and start over in a new profession; however, working in a dying industry without any backup plan for its closure could be detrimental. Replacing coal industry jobs with renewable energy jobs is a very likely, transferable, and cost effective solution. Transmission lines already run from central Montana to Seattle and can be dispersed to west coast states that are on the forefront of the movement to using renewable energy in the United States, meaning buyers with large scale demand. The lines can continue to carry electricity from Montana to their buyers, but instead, the lines will be filled with clean, green electricity.

In regards to transferable jobs, the coal operations will have to be properly decommissioned, which includes reclamation of the mines, proper handling of polluted ash ponds, and large scale demolition of the structures if they cannot be converted to a compressed natural gas plant or other applicable usage. This will include skills that are acquired while working in the coal industry, such as heavy machinery experience, manual labor, environmental, civil, geological, and mechanical engineering disciplines, steel and iron work, and pipe fitting to name a few. Miners and technicians familiar with the particular mine or similar work may be the best prospects for its cleanup force. These job skills do not just apply to the ending of the coal industry, but also to the implementation and upkeep of renewables. While renewable energy is not something brand new, especially in Montana, the number of workers in the industry will need to increase significantly in order to take on the load that coal still consumes. The necessary workforce can be achieved through those currently employed in the coal industry as well as the influx of new job-seekers like me with an environmentally-minded approach. The combination of hard-workers from the coal industry and recent college graduates with an environmental emphasis could catalyze the renewable industry. In return, renewable energy implementation will create jobs that are available for those with skills in applicable engineering disciplines, environmental assessment and impact specialists, heavy machinery operators, metal work, electricians, and other specific technicians, many of which exist in the coal industry.

The manager of the Invenergy Judith Gap Wind Farm called working in wind a blue collar job with a white collar background, especially in electrical knowledge. Thus wages are competitive and comparable to working in coal mines, with wages exceeding $40 per hour for experienced technicians. While visiting the Signal Peak coal mine, the ground operations manager stated that nearly 98% of his new employees in the past four months have been younger and do not have prior mining experience. This indicates experienced miners are retiring and providing opportunities to the younger generations to fill openings. If workers can be thrown into a coal mine and be successful, there is no doubt that the same transition to renewable energy jobs can be made too.

Northern Plain states reaped multiple benefits from the coal industry, but the one that was harmed from the industry was the environment. In order to continue to admire the great outdoors, like I am doing on this bike tour through Montana, we must be mindful of our actions on the Earth. With the decline of the coal industry, it is the perfect time for renewable energy adoption to swoop in and fill the jobs that were provided from coal. The current dedication to coal is based on a fear of losing well paying, consistent jobs, but that fear can be diminished using skills acquired from coal work and transferring them to the renewable energy job sector.

Madison Pettersen-Bradford: Paradox


We all live in paradox. That’s what our instructor Joe said at the beginning of this section as we rode all together in the van to Escalante, Utah. That statement confused and saddened me. It left me wondering about why we live this way and how I might live like this in my life. So, as this section went on, the meaning and role of paradox in my life became more clear. Starting with our journey to Glen Canyon Dam and then to the Hopi Reservation, paradoxes were illuminated in our studies of these places. I explore this topic as a way to deal with that conflicting feeling in my gut, and discuss possible solutions based on some of the topics explored throughout this section.

In the dictionary, paradox is described as a person or thing displaying contradictory qualities.

Glen Canyon Dam was our first stop on our search for knowledge in our front country section. This dam is widely appreciated and respected for its clean energy production. During the production of hydropower there are no CO2 emissions. However, there is important information missing in this clean energy assumption. Building the dam was extremely energy intensive and has had unfortunate ecological effects. For example, it prevents species of fish which rely on migration upstream to spawn, and it changes the fundamental processes of the river, like flooding, which requires energy intensive management downstream. So, standing there looking at what I once would’ve viewed as a great structure, I felt that paradox feeling. Something that is supposed to be beneficial to the environment has many costs that may or may not be worth it.

Similar arguments could be made for other “clean” energy sources like uranium. Extraction and enrichment of uranium is damaging to ecological systems above the ground and is also very energy intensive. Additionally, the radioactive waste resulting from the production of electricity from uranium poses a risk for the health of humans and other species. It’s paradoxical that in our search for better resources we end up using a lot of energy. And despite the proven problems that arise from overconsumption, we continue our search for resources instead of reducing our consumption.

So much of our American culture is based on material wealth which we can only get by using resources. Barry Lopez hits the nail on the head when he says, “There is not the raw material in the woods, or beyond, to make all of us rich. And in striving for it, we will only make ourselves, all of us, poor,” (15). That’s a paradox in itself. In this search for wealth, we realize it’s not sustainable so we turn to “clean” resources. But this isn’t helping the problem, only postponing it.

The next part of our journey led us to the Hopi reservation where we studied the culture of the Hopi people. Dorothy Denet, our host, and Bucky Preston, another community member, gave us some insight on their way of life and thinking. They both emphasized the value of treating the land with respect and humanity as well as local community being vital in holding up their values. During these discussions I found myself with another one of those gut wrenching feelings that I couldn’t figure out what to do with. Isn’t it funny how I traveled so far away from my home to hear about the importance of community in holding up the environmental values I possess? In addition, all of this traveling I have done, flying from Minnesota, and using a van to travel in the Four Corners area in order to learn how other people interact with the Earth has added an extensive amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. Isn’t using all of this fuel for travel going against my very goal of reducing my footprint on this Earth?

It is hard to navigate these paradoxes that are apparent in my life, especially as I have been immersed in a culture that directly contradicts some of the values I possess. How does one deal with these feelings, this duality, that we face everyday? I’d like to do my best to treat the Earth with respect but I find myself acting in ways that don’t align with my beliefs. I suppose the way I deal with this is trying to counteract the things I have done, that I may not have been able to avoid, with more environmentally friendly choices in the other aspects of my life. Here is where I turn to a concept introduced to me by Donella Meadows in her article “Dancing with Systems.” She emphasizes the expansion of time horizons. This idea encourages me to think beyond the short time frames we focus in on as a society, most commonly a couple of years or a generation. Therefore, it becomes important to look both further into the future and in the short-term. So then, my emissions now will never be counteracted unless I take the same amount out of the atmosphere. But using the tools I have learned on the course I have the ability to add to the “good side” of my paradox, working with another system in the future. In this way of thinking, every little bit counts until large scale change can be made and potentially reduces the paradoxes I face in our society.

Beth Porter: The Coal We Burn

bethTwo things that have never failed me on our journey through Montana are the nightly series of lilac sky sunsets, encompassing fiery red and pink clouds and a lingering lightness, and an ever-changing landscape. As we rolled from Yellowstone County through Musselshell, Golden Valley, Wheatland, Meagher and currently Lewis and Clark County, I have witnessed the surrounding landscape evolve day by day. I have been mesmerized by the folded and slanted stratification of sandstone from ancient marine sediment and outcrops of archaic igneous dikes that have surpassed time and the rock that once overlaid it.

In the past weeks as we’ve pedaled toward the Rocky Mountain Front, we’ve had the pleasure of passing several other mountain ranges including the Crazy Mountains — a marvelous sight and one of my personal favorites — and the Big and Little Belt ranges. The hills are getting steeper, meaning harder uphill climbs and more fun downhill spirals. But coming from Oregon, where mountains make more sense to me (due to a subducting oceanic plate and active volcanoes), I was curious as to how these mountains all came to be in the middle of a continent with no obvious tectonic motion.

Early in our journey, as we rode from Billings to Roundup and then Ryegate, we were surrounded by broad plains of grasses and wildflowers and rolling golden hills — perfect for cattle to graze and cyclists to build massive quads. This is also where we came across the Signal Peak coal mine, an underground operation where they said they had at least 20 years of mining left in that seam (layer of coal) alone. As we toured the mine, they explained that two thirds of their roughly 300 employees work underground at up to 800-foot under burden. This work is dangerous, but in this instance that depth illustrates just how long ago that coal was formed. The miners are literally carving out a layer of earth that first settled there about 300 million years ago and has since been compacted and covered with much more.

But why can we dig up this specific layer and burn it for energy? Hundreds of millions of years ago, when the fossil fuels we know of now were first being created, the landscape of the earth was very different than it is today. Instead of deserts and rolling ranchlands, the earth was covered in swampy forests and shallow seas that were densely populated with carbon rich plant life and peat — or layers of accumulated biomass and decayed vegetation. This was known as the Carboniferous period because a high density of carbon was being stored, along with energy from the sun via photosynthesis, in plants that sank to the bottoms of the swamps as they died. All of this stored carbon and energy was just sitting in the swamps, slowly condensing, and eventually being covered with layers of other sediment. As millions of years passed, the pressure and heat from compaction and increasing depth transformed the biomass from peat to lignite and eventually to the coal we see today. While the production of coal is a natural process, this time span makes it non-renewable and modern day earth rarely has the right conditions to again stimulate this type of production.

All in all, between the Rocky Mountains and the Bakken Formation, Montana is a geologic jackpot and it is for this reason that it is rapidly being excavated. As we toured the mine, there was a plethora of machinery, conveyer belts and crushing machines, rapidly pulling the coal from the earth and processing it for consumption. We witnessed it flying from underground and then stood atop the massive black piles, ready to be loaded into a train and shipped over seas. It was an incredible experience, but the difference in time spans still blows my mind. Something that takes millions of years to form was being processed within hours. From the mind of a student of geology, it is efficient, but slightly unsettling.