The sprawling state of Montana seems an unlikely setting for the next major battle against climate change. Compared to the Keystone XL protests that have spanned the continent, with mass sit-ins outside the White House and high-profile celebrity arrests, last year’s Coal Export Action in Helena was a modest yet groundbreaking achievement, with a few hundred participants and 23 arrests. In fact, in a state with one of the sparsest populations in the country, it was a huge triumph–the largest climate-related act of civil disobedience in Montana’s history–and the first time issues surrounding coal export mining have broken into Montana’s public discourse and press. In addition to opening a floodgate of mine development, the state’s incoming mine and railroad proposals pose a direct health threat to local residents and destroy more land. If successful in blocking the development of new coal mines in Montana, the Coal Export Action will not only be protecting Montana’s valuable agricultural resources, but will also prevent further pollution from coal trains running throughout the Pacific Northwest. In doing so, it will be setting a powerful precedent towards advancing clean energy solutions.
We arrived in Helena after a couple of days of driving through endless green mountains, right as the Coal Export Action was wrapping up the last of their arraignments and legal paperwork. Several people emerged from the courthouse, just down the street from City Hall, where the rotunda had been the site of a week of civil disobedience. The place where activists and residents gathered against coal export mining and delivered their demands to Attorney General Steve Bullock was, by that point, deserted. The sunlit halls were also eerily quiet.