Turning the Page on Coal

Photograph Source: http://www.wy.blm.gov/minerals/coal/ – Public Domain

For years, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe has fought to protect our reservation and people from the harmful environmental and social impacts of coal mining and energy production. We have pleaded with the Biden administration to take action on the federal coal-leasing program and address individual leases near our reservation, such as the Rosebud strip mine. But while the administration has maintained a court-ordered pause on new leasing, it has not met the urgent need to begin phasing out mining of federal coal and cleaning up the industry’s toxic legacy of pollution. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently conducted a scoping process on the impacts of maintaining a coal-leasing moratorium that was instituted in 2016.

Unfortunately, we have been through this before — BLM went through a public scoping process in 2016 and 2021 on the federal coal-leasing program, only to fail to reform leasing practices. In fact, we were forced to go to court to fight for the moratorium after the Biden administration refused to reverse a Trump-era policy overturning it. The court agreed with us that BLM must fully consider the environmental consequences before issuing new coal leases, and the moratorium was reinstated.

While it is essential that the BLM maintain the moratorium, that is not enough to protect our tribal community — and communities across the globe — from coal mining. It is clear that the U.S. coal program is a climate-fueling relic of the past that hurts communities and our environment. Not only must the federal government end new leasing on public lands, it must end existing production as well. Instead, BLM has renewed eight coal leases in the last year for the Rosebud coal mine, which impacts our reservation. Since April 1, 2021, BLM has renewed dozens more leases without adopting any new conditions to make coal executives pay for the harm they cause. It’s irresponsible for the Biden administration to allow for the continued production of coal while we are facing both a pollution crisis and a climate emergency. To have any chance at limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C, we must completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from federal coal production — and quickly.

The Rosebud mine and adjacent Colstrip power plant have done irreparable harm to our land and people. For the Northern Cheyenne, land is sacred and water is life itself. Our reservation has been affected by air pollution and runoff that impairs our water quality. Mining has destroyed habitat for sensitive species and important cultural sites, including those used for Cheyenne ceremonies. We have fought with all we have to preserve and live on the land that contains the bones of our loved ones, but it doesn’t need to be this way.

It is time to end the era of coal and embrace the promise of clean energy. Our people were promised economic prosperity when coal development began in this region, but those economic benefits were never felt by the tribe. As we work to create economic opportunity by developing renewable energy, we ask the administration to stand alongside us and halt destructive coal mining.

Montana’s elected officials are pretending the climate crisis is not real and that coal is here to stay. The worsening economics of coal production say otherwise, and communities like Colstrip will only suffer because of this lack of foresight and leadership. The absence of a transition plan as mines like Rosebud move toward eventual closure is unacceptable. Without state leadership, the Biden administration must step forward and hasten a transition to clean energy that ensures that those who have suffered the worst harms from the coal industry are not forgotten. By utilizing the existing transmission line infrastructure in the region, we can help propel Eastern Montana into economic growth and prosperity once again.

The time of caving into industry and allowing corrupt politicians to determine our energy future must end. The climate crisis requires meaningful solutions that move us away from coal as quickly as possible, while supporting communities like ours that are working to produce more clean energy and create jobs. The Biden administration needs to pick a side: those who continue to double down on fossil fuels or the communities fighting to ensure a livable planet for us all.

William Walks Along is the tribal administrator for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.