New EPA Rules Motivate Montana To Look Beyond Coal Montana has one of the heaviest lifts of any state to comply with the EPA's plan to reduce carbon emissions. But the state is also rich in renewable energy, and the regulations may be a boon to some.

New EPA Rules Motivate Montana To Look Beyond Coal

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The EPA's new Clean Power Plan unveiled last month aims to tackle global warming by cutting carbon emissions. That's likely to mean reduced coal production. In states like Montana, that could affect the lives and livelihoods of many people. The state's attorney general says he may join others in suing the EPA over the new rules. Amy Martin of Montana Public Radio reports.

AMY MARTIN, BYLINE: Colstrip, Mont., is true to its name. It exists because of coal. Kevin Murphy has worked in the Rosebud Mine for 15 years, running a bulldozer in the open pits.

KEVIN MURPHY: This is our biggest trucks here.

MARTIN: This is like a railroad car going down the road almost.

K. MURPHY: They ride super smooth.

MARTIN: Everything about the mine is enormous, especially the dragline, a machine as big as a ship with a giant boom that extends 300 feet up into the air. The dragline perches on the lip of the pit, scraping away hundreds of feet of rocky soil to reveal the black seam of cold below.

K. MURPHY: Our coal's getting deeper, like everywhere else, because everybody's mining, and they're getting into the deeper stuff.

MARTIN: The coal goes directly to the power plant across the highway where it's pulverized and burned. This mine-to-mouth option is the second largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi. But Kevin's wife, Marti Murphy, says if you're picturing blackened skies and sooty streets, you haven't actually been to Colstrip.

MARTI MURPHY: I feel like that is how we're perceived, as a dirty coal mining town. It's just not true.

MARTIN: Marti works in the accounts payable office at the mine. She points out the money generated from coal has given her community amenities you wouldn't normally find in a town of just over 2,000 people.

M. MURPHY: We have free golf if you live in the city limits, free gym membership if you live in the city limits, walking paths all around town, a park in every single neighborhood that you could think of.

MARTIN: The goal of the EPA's Clean Power Plan is to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide from 2005 levels. Marti says she wants a healthy environment, but talk of shutting down coal-fired power plants feels threatening in Colstrip.

M. MURPHY: It's pretty scary because you think about it, and then you have to think, well, where would we go if something happened?

MARK HAGGERTY: I would be worried.

MARTIN: That's economist Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics, an independent research group in Bozeman, Mont. His organization studies energy issues across the West, and he says the real threat to Colstrip may not be the Clean Power Plan.

HAGGERTY: There are larger market trends that are already forcing a big transition away from coal towards natural gas.

MARTIN: Those trends could be good for Montana. The state does produce some natural gas, and it's also rich in renewable resources like wind. The American Wind Energy Association ranks Montana third among states with potential land-based wind power generation, but it's currently 21st in the nation for actual wind production. Haggerty says the infrastructure to move wind energy toward population centers is one of the primary things holding it back.

HAGGERTY: Those issues I think will be resolved, and I would expect that we could see renewables being a significant competitor with both coal and natural gas over the next decade.

MARTIN: That transition is well underway for Jenni Bryce, who lives near the town of Belt in Central Montana. In the pasture behind her house, cattle are grazing, solar panels are collecting sunlight and several turbines are whirling in the wind.

JENNI BRYCE: Well, we have a Bergey 10-kilowatt wind turbine, which is probably the standard size for residential.

MARTIN: Bryce founded Pine Ridge Products 16 years ago. It's a small-scale solar and wind installation company that she runs from her home. Bryce didn't plan to become a renewable energy entrepreneur.

BRYCE: No. I'm actually a speech therapist (laughter).

MARTIN: But after she and her husband put up solar panels and a wind turbine for their own use, other families start asking them for advice. That led them to start consulting, manufacturing parts and designing new turbine models. Climate change was not what motivated Bryce to start her business. She points out that families like hers have been using windmills for a long time.

BRYCE: I mean, they've been using them for water pumping. And you look back at our history of rural electrification, and before that, you know, they used windmills connected to batteries, you know, for their power in their houses.

MARTIN: In true Montana fashion, Bryce's commitment to renewable energy grows out of her rural roots and her passion for self-sufficiency. That passion will be needed to bring Montana into compliance with the new EPA rules and to help ease the transition away from coal in coming decades. For NPR News, I'm Amy Martin in Missoula, Mont.

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