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Arrested (Mining) Development in Montana

Scott Parkin is a climate change activist associated with Rising Tide North America and Rainforest Action Network, where he works as a Senior Campaigner on the group’s Global Finance Campaign. Scott has organized numerous non-violent protests across the United States. Most recently participated with other individuals in protesting coal mining in Montana, where he and others were arrested during their sit-in. Recently, CounterPunch’s Joshua Frank spoke with Scott about the protests, the Democrats’ culpability and what’s next for the climate change movement.

Joshua Frank: Scott, why take the fight against coal exports to Montana?

Scott Parkin: Coal exports is a preventable human, environmental and climate catastrophe. Last year, the Obama Administration opened up over 700 million tons of coal reserves in Wyoming to export to Asian energy markets. Now Arch Coal has proposed another mine called Otter Creek in Montana’s Powder River Basin to export another 600 million tons. The social and environmental impacts will be enormous. The Montana Land Board, led by MT Gov. Brian Schweitzer, will be deciding on Arch’s proposal later this year. It only makes sense that we take the fight stop coal exports at the source in Montana.

Joshua Frank: Talk a little about the sit-in that took place last month in Helena. What groups were involved and what outcome were you hoping to obtain? 

Scott Parkin: It’s was series of rolling civil disobediences aimed at members of the Montana Land Board with offices the state capital. We occupied the rotunda during the day with a core group sitting in after we were asked to leave by police. Groups working on the project included the Blue Skies Campaign, 350.org, Rainforest Action Network, Rising Tide North America and Greenpeace. More importantly a diverse group of activists from around the region have converged to make this action a reality.

Joshua Frank: How did the media handle the protests? What was the reaction from Montanans in general? 

Scott Parkin: The media response was surface level. We had a couple of good Associated Press stories about the protests, and Arch’s filing for the permit to mine Otter Creek. But they’ve been more “breaking news” than deeper coverage. Coal exports is an emerging issue which will cause catastrophic human and ecological disasters, but the media, as usual, ignores the bigger environmental and climate story.

Montanans that we encountered were supportive. We’ve had many conversations with people along the rail lines who realize the impact coal exports will have on their daily life. Every day, Montanans are sitting in at
the statehouse with us and being taken to jail. A group of ladies from “Montana Women For” sat in with us. It’s a critical issue that has local and global ramifications and Montanans realize that.

Mid-way through our protests the director of the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality, Richard Opper, met us as we picketed his agency’s headquarters to accept our “Non-Mining Permit” and have a conversation about Otter Creek. He stated that he agreed with us, but said he was bound by laws and regulations that barred him from stopping coal exports outright. He also admitted that he started his work initially because he was concerned about the “sacrifice zone” that was planned for the coal extractive eastern part of Montana.

Joshua Frank: Can you talk a bit about the broader climate change movement for a moment? What significant things are happening elsewhere in the U.S. as well as internationally? 

Scott Parkin: The coal movement has hit a critical juncture. Due to increased regulation, litigation, successful community led campaigns and the rising cost of natural gas, the coal industry is in a bit of trouble. In Appalachia, activists have stepped up their game to end mountaintop removal. Rainforest Action Network has taken the largest funder of coal, Bank of America, to task around its funding of the industry. Environmentalists and communities are also preparing for coal’s next step which is to open up exports on the Gulf Coast.

Globally, we’re seeing a lot of activity in Australia resisting the coal industry there. and in China, they’ve had tens of thousands of people riot and shut down operating coal plants.

Joshua Frank: Like West Virginia and other coal states, most of Montana’s Democrats, with Gov. Schweitzer front and center, appear to be in the pocket of the coal industry. Not all environmentalists are critical of Democrats the same way they are critical of Republicans. How should the climate change movement approach these situations? 

Scott Parkin: In order to address fossil fuel extraction issues and climate change we need to defend communities impacted by both. The climate movement also needs to adapt a systemic critique of the issues. The country is run by elites from both parties. Those elites benefit one way or another from the fossil fuel industry. People in Appalachia and Montana fighting extraction have had it figured out for years because they’ve been sold out numerous times by Democrats like Brian Schweitzer and West Virginia’s chief lobbyist for the coal industry Sen. Joe Manchin.

In order to fight the horrendous coal extraction going on in different parts of the country, environmentalists and climate fighters need to realize that the Democratic Party is not their friend. Instead of looking for them to come around and do “the right thing” the climate movement needs to organize more anti-corporate campaigns, build and empower networks and movements led by frontline communities and use non-violent direct action to confront the root causes of some of our problems instead of giving our power away to elected officials who aren’t working in our best interest anyway.

Joshua Frank: What’s next? What can regular folks that are concerned about climate change do to help support the sorts of actions taking place in Montana? 

In Montana they can join the Missoula, Montana based Blue Skies Campaign or Northern Rockies Rising Tide. Nationally, they can get involved with groups like Rainforest Action Network and Rising Tide North America. There is much more to come.

Joshua Frank is author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, and of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank

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