Montana Environmental Issues

MoffetsLand near the property of Don and Irene Moffett in Glendive, Mont., where the Keystone pipeline will pass. The couple worries that Keystone will degrade the land.Nate Schweber

GLENDIVE, Mont. — In the kitchen of a small white farmhouse down a corrugated dirt road, through a sea of grass, Irene Moffett pointed at chalky buttes on the blue horizon. For generations, her family has worked this land. Now, one mile from her property, a Canadian company hopes to lay the Keystone XL pipeline, which would siphon crude oil from Canada's tar-sand mines to a seaport on the Gulf of Mexico.

Moffet"Most jobs won't last after the pipeline's built, and what happens if there's a spill?" said Moffett, 77. "Why should we put up with the pollution, the disruption of agricultural lands? What's in it for Montana?"

Across this massive state, with scenery ranging from snowy mountains to virgin prairies, a diverse collection of Montanans, in love with their land, is opposing new transportation infrastructure for coal and oil.

Three proposed projects — the Keystone XL pipeline, a new coal railroad and a trucking route for mining equipment the size of apartment buildings — have triggered protests in different regions of the state, and not just from people who dislike fossil fuels.

Ranchers, Native Americans, farmers and environmentalists say they don't want the industrialization of the land that comes with moving the fuels and with the equipment needed for their extraction.

"A certain amount of that has to happen, " said Moffett's husband, Donald Moffett, 84, standing on tawny fields his grandparents homesteaded in 1909. "But I'd just as soon it stay agriculture."

Irene Moffett in her kitchen.Nate Schweber

The fuels these proposed projects would transport are among the filthiest on earth, some scientists warn. Environmentalists argue that burning coal and Canadian tar sands oil could saturate the atmosphere with a critical amount of carbon dioxide — so much that the climate would heat up even faster than it is already warming.Missouri Many are calling the northwestern United States, with Montana at its heart, a carbon choke point — that is, a place where opponents might stop dirty fossil fuels before they can be burned.

Montana is "potentially a real cork in the carbon bottle, " said author and activist Bill McKibben. "And it's a perfect illustration of the emerging, sprawling fossil-fuel resistance. It's necessarily centered in local concerns."


The most controversial of the pending projects is the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a project yet to be approved by President Barack Obama's administration. Around the world, many have debated the project in terms of risk to the climate, potential to make the United States more energy independent and opportunity to create wealth. But more is at stake in Montana.

Laurel spillBill Whitehead, who serves on the water commission for the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, said his mind changed on Keystone in 2011. That year, a leaking Exxon pipeline in southeastern Montana dumped more than 60, 000 gallons of crude oil into an 85-mile stretch of the Yellowstone River. Then he learned about a pipeline from Alberta's tar sands that ruptured in Michigan in 2010. About a million gallons of a heavy crude oil called bitumen poured into the Kalamazoo River, where it sank to the bottom, complicating the cleanup. The same kind of crude is set to flow through Keystone, across the Missouri River, just upstream from the reservation.

"Initially you think about the jobs, " said Whitehead, a tribal elder who lives in Wolf Point. "And then you think about the bigger picture." He wrote to both of Obama's secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, urging them to oppose Keystone.

Pipeline proponents, though, note that extraction is already the third-largest industry in the state, behind tourism and agribusiness. Even without the 283 miles of Keystone set to slice across the eastern part of the state, they say, Montana has 6, 700 miles of pipelines.

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