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Coal Towns Face An Uncertain Future. What Is The Country Obliged To Do?


We have a bitter irony this morning of President Trump's drive to support coal. The president promised to bring back coal jobs. That's one reason he said he wants out of a global climate agreement, and it's also why he's blocking President Obama's Clean Power Plan. But a visit to a coal town shows its people are suffering an unintended consequence of President Trump's moves. Here's NPR's Nathan Rott.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Colstrip, Mont., is a town built on coal, coal that's scraped from the ground beneath the rolling sage-covered hills, trucked or transported by a humming four-mile conveyor belt past tree-lined streets and idle train cars to a towering four-unit power plant at the heart of this tiny town. It's there at the second-largest coal-fired power plant in the West that the coal is burnt, turning water to steam, providing electricity from Montana clear to the greater Pacific Northwest.

LU SHOMATE: That's who we are. If it wasn't for the coal and then the generation of course, none of this would be here.

ROTT: Lu Shomate runs the town's historical center in an old schoolhouse.

SHOMATE: Built in 1924.

ROTT: The same year that the Northern Pacific Railroad decided to turn this coal-rich patch of prairie into a company town. There have been booms and busts since, as with any resource town. Right now there's fear of a bust. Half of Colstrip's power plant is slated to close in the coming years because of a lawsuit over air quality. On top of that, the two biggest customers for Colstrip's energy, Oregon and Washington, have made long-term commitments to get off coal.

The combined uncertainty has caused real estate values in the town to plummet, leaving people in sunk mortgages. Shomate says the same thing that's happened in Appalachia and other blue-collar parts of the country is now starting to happen here.

SHOMATE: The middle class is being ripped apart.

ROTT: Shomate and others in Colstrip are not giving up on coal - far from it. But they want a plan for the future. That means money. And if you ask people here where that money should come from, they'll tell you to look west.

DUANE ANKNEY: There would be no Facebook. There would be no Bill Gates. None of that would be in Seattle without low-cost, reliable power that comes from Colstrip, Mont.

ROTT: Duane Ankney is Colstrip's Senator in the state legislature, and he proposed a bill in Montana's legislature earlier this year to get that money. There are six utilities that own Colstrip's power plant. All are based out of state. Ankney's bill would have put them on the hook when they decide to leave by requiring them to help pay for lost tax revenues, job training for workers and those sunken real estate values. Ankney, a Republican, says it was about accountability, accountability to the state of Montana and the workers who made the utilities what they are.

ANKNEY: I think that would go a long ways to - to cop a phrase - make America great again - is when you have corporate responsibility.

ROTT: Ankney's bill failed. It was fought by utilities and environmental groups who feared it would scare away future investment for renewable energy. Its sister bill, though, which required the utilities have a plan and money set aside for environmental remediation at the plant site passed. So there's a plan for the environment in Colstrip, not for the people. The irony, though, here is there was a plan for people...

REX ROGERS: That's the Clean Power Plan.

ROTT: ...President Obama's plan to reduce carbon emissions. Rex Rogers keeps a copy of it, all 1,560-some pages, at the union hall. Rogers represents about 250 workers at the power plant here. He's a business manager for the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW. And as such, he fought against the Clean Power Plan because it likely would have meant closures here. Fast forward to now. The Clean Power Plan is stopped. The Trump administration is working on a repeal.

ROGERS: But yet we see coal plants shutting down. Well, the concern with that is, built into the Clean Power Plan...

ROTT: In some of those 1,500 pages was a section.

ROGERS: ...About transitioning, taking care of the workers in those parts of it.

ROTT: It was the Obama administration's way of saying, yes, we know this will close down plants; here is our plan to cushion the fall. Now Rogers says that cushion is gone, and there's nothing being proffered by the new administration to replace it.

ROGERS: Even though we won the war on coal, it doesn't appear that there was anything in that for the workers.

ROTT: Julia Haggerty, a professor at Montana State University, studies efforts to help struggling coal towns. And she thinks the federal government's new never-say-die approach to the coal industry could have repercussions.

JULIA HAGGERTY: It appears that that comes with a price of - then let's pretend that the transition isn't happening. And that I think does not do a service to the places that are experiencing the transition.

ROTT: Haggerty wants to see more discussion about what happens to a town like Colstrip as the nation shifts further away from coal. And she says it's important that people in a place like this are part of it. That, she says, would help soothe the bitterness that exists between rural places that have historically provided this energy and their urban neighbors who may no longer want it. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Colstrip, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FAI'S "TO THE GREEN TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.