This is a story about coal in America, and how the mining and transport of the shiny black rock has set two Native American tribes – and many others between them – against one another in an epic struggle over the future of our dirtiest fossil fuel.
In 2014 National Geographic ran a short daily news piece about a proposed $500 million marine terminal near Bellingham, W.A. that would carry U.S. coal to energy-hungry Asia. If built, as many as 18 new freight trains would run back and forth each day from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to the Gateway Pacific Terminal and two others in Oregon and Washington. For many Crow Indians, who live in poverty, the thick coal seam running below their Montana reservation seems like a savior. With over half the adult population unemployed, and lacking adequate housing or healthcare, a new agreement to mine with Cloud Peak Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the world, could prove a lifeline for the tribe in the form of jobs, and hundreds of millions of dollars.
But only if there is a way to get that coal to market. Opposition to export terminals in the Pacific Northwest has reached a fever pitch, with residents, mayors and environmental groups lining up to protest the pollution and traffic congestion that would accompany this new portal to the global fossil fuel trade. Ultimately, the fate of the Gateway Pacific Terminal may rest with the Lummi Indians, a Native American tribe in Puget Sound whose treaty rights under federal law guarantee them access to hunt and fish their native lands near the proposed terminal site. To many Lummi, coal is an agent of their demise, threatening to pollute the fishing grounds they depend on for a living and defile the ancient cultural sites that sustain their traditions.
I have been following coal’s proposed odyssey – from the Crow Reservation in southeast Montana to the Lummi Nation on the northwest coast – to report on one of the nation’s largest and most influential industries. At a time of flagging U.S. coal consumption, there are global issues at play here – global warming, renewable energy, international trade – but our story goes beyond corporate boardrooms, commodity markets and legislative chambers to explore the stakes for communities at either end of the rail line.
In between the Crow and Lummi Nations, there are myriad communities – Spokane and Seattle, for instance – with vastly different views about if and how the U.S. should export coal to countries like China and India.