City commission meetings in Great Falls, Montana have become increasingly raucous over the last several months. Two years ago, only a handful of people showed up to protest what a few residents saw as a bad choice for their community. But the number of dissenters is growing, and recently the police had to escort two people out of a particularly heated public gathering.

The cause of the commotion is a coal-fired power plant proposed for the banks of the Missouri River.

“It’s about clean air and clean water,” says Jamie Watson, a local hair stylist and activist.    “I’ve never been anywhere cleaner than Great Falls. If that gets taken away, I’ll move.”

With quality of life and climate change concerns on the rise, governors from blue and red states across the nation are increasingly throwing their support behind “clean coal” projects—plants that decrease the amount of pollution they emit through coal gasification, carbon capture, or other technologies. Earlier this year, for example, five governors announced their support for NextGen, a national campaign of public and private interests committed to clean coal, renewable energy technologies, and new beneficial uses of carbon dioxide.

Despite this rush of support for cleaner energy by state leadership, plans to build coal-fired plants that utilize older, dirtier technology persist—which has some ecophiles up in arms. In Texas, environmental groups have successfully decreased the number of proposed plants that will use antiquated technology from 11 to three. Activists in Montana, where five dirty coal projects are in the works, have established a similar set of priorities.

Coal is readily available in Montana: With nearly 120 billion tons of the resource, the Big Sky state ranks first in the nation for total reserves.

Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s governor, has declared furthering clean coal technology a top priority, making him popular among blue dog democrats, some environmentalists, and political conservatives frustrated with republican leadership on energy issues.

But not everybody thinks coal is the way to go.

Members of the nonprofit Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) acknowledge that plants using the new, integrated gasification combined cycle technology—which gasifies coal before it is burned, drastically reducing the quantity of particulates, mercury, and other pollutants emitted from smokestacks—would be an improvement. But they say they’d prefer to see the governor push harder for wind, hydro, and geothermal power.    

The opposition hasn’t dissuaded the governor from promoting his coal initiative. After MEIC criticized his plan, saying that any coal technology is harming the planet, Schweitzer told the Helena Independent Record, “If there was still a phone booth in Helena, [MEIC] could have their meetings there.”

Despite Schweitzer’s support of clean coal, he also publicly endorsed the 250 megawatt, dirty coal-fired Highwood Generating Station proposed last June for the Great Falls area, despite its older combustion technology.

With the governor in full support, the project seemed an easy sell—until residents took action against it. In the spring of 2005, the husband and wife team of Charles Bocock and Cheryl Reichert founded Citizens for Clean Energy (CCE) to protest the plant. When asked if he thought citizen opposition could stop the Highwood proposal, Bocock replied, “There are many arrows in our quiver.”

In their protests, CCE plans to emphasize several main points: Highwood, they say, will produce 2.4 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, and pollutants such as sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide will blow over fertile wheat fields east of the city, Bocock explained. The cost of the plant is also prohibitive: the estimated price tag is $720 million. Furthermore, the proposed plant site sits on a National Historic Marker, and 48 landowners have sued the county, claiming agricultural land has been illegally rezoned for industrial use.

While one of these arrows is unlikely to fell the project, all four may prove lethal. Just six months after his endorsement of Highwood, Schweitzer reversed his position on the plant, and said he won’t extend tax incentives to the project. But it still might be built.

According to Schweitzer’s chief business officer, Evan Barrett, “In the larger framework of the governor’s strategic direction, this is the last of the old [plants] before we move on to the new.”

A final decision on financing for Highwood is due soon, and it is likely to be litigated for some time afterward. Regardless of the outcome, a small group of dedicated citizens continues to slow the governor’s coal train.

When asked if the CCE will manage to switch the line to a slightly greener track, Bocock recalls Schweitzer’s jibe against MEIC.

“Remember,” he says with a grin, “When I was a boy, Superman came out of a phone booth.”

Story by Gabriel Furshong. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in May 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Putting the brakes on the coal train
Environmentalists in Montana are fighting over coal-fired power plants.