The idea for “Momenta,” one of this year’s must-watch environmental documentaries for people concerned about climate change and the future of snow, was hatched in Boulder’s Flatirons in the fall of 2012. Big-mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones was visiting town with Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters (POW), the climate change group Jones founded. The two men decided to take a hike to brainstorm ways that POW could rally opposition against a major climate threat that has received scant attention from the national media—a coal train.
“We don’t have the ability yet to mobilize a grassroots army, so we decided a documentary was the best way to get the word out,” Steinkamp says.
“Momenta” sheds light on a climate-wrecking proposal to ship vast amounts of Rocky Mountain coal to Asia. The film stars Jones, legendary climber Conrad Anker and other big-mountain athletes who speak about the changes they’ve seen in the mountains during their lifetimes—as well as biologists, climate scientists, physicians and activists who detail the detrimental consequences of the plan hatched by energy companies, which will excavate vast coal deposits in Montana’s and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, transport it by rail to the Pacific Northwest, then ship it across the Pacific.
Critics deride the coal-to-China plan as “Keystone on steroids,” a reference to the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline proposal that would transport tar sand oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast for export. Keystone has been called a climate bomb. Burning the Powder River Basin coal, however, poses an even bigger climate threat. “That coal has to stay in the ground,” environmental author and activist Bill McKibben explains in the film.
The Death of Coal?
The proposal sounds decent at first: the Powder River Basin holds the largest and most easily recovered stores of coal in the United States and it currently supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s need for the natural resource. But demand for coal is shrinking in the United States. The percentage of U.S. power generated from it has declined to about 40 percent and no new U.S. coal power plants are being built—a trend that energy experts expect to continue. Coal’s domestic decline is due to the nation’s natural gas drilling boom, which has created a glut of cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas, and tougher federal environmental laws and carbon dioxide regulations that are making coal power plants economically unfeasible.
The demise of coal power in the United States is good news for climate hawks. Coal’s carbon footprint is twice that of natural gas when burned, and coal contributes 44 percent of the planet’s energy-related CO2 emissions, according the federal Energy Information Administration. Coal executives, however, aren’t ready to close their mines. China and other Asian nations are erecting coal power plants at a rapid clip, and energy companies see Asia as the world’s best market for U.S. coal. China is the world’s largest importer of it, followed by Japan, India and South Korea. About 80 percent of China’s electricity comes from coal, and US exports to Asia have been growing. But the Pacific Northwest ports that export coal to Asia are at maximum capacity.
To get Powder River Basin coal to Asia, companies, including Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, have teamed up with some of the world’s largest port developers to push a plan for three new ports in Washington and Oregon. The two biggest ports would be built in Washington at Cherry Point, near Bellingham, and down the coast in Longview. A smaller one is being considered for Port Morrow, Ore. In addition to the new ports, the plan would require new rail lines and a dramatic increase in the number of coal trains traveling through some of the most desirable and outdoorsy communities in the Northern Rockies and Northwest: Missoula and Bozeman, Montana; Sand Point, Idaho; Spokane and Bellingham, Washington; and many other cities and towns between.
There’s more at stake than disrupting the idyll of outdoorsy towns. Coal trains are filthy business. Reaching more than a mile in length, open-car coal trains belch diesel smoke and blow off tons of coal dust—up to 31 tons per train on their journey westward, according to opponents. Coal dust contains mercury and other toxins, prompting the Sierra Club and other groups to sue the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, saying dust blown from the coal cars pollutes waterways in violation of the Clean Water Act.
“The fundamental truth is that coal is very dirty,” says Brett VandenHeuvel of the group Columbia Riverkeeper. “It’s bad to have coal trains ripping through your town spewing dust, no matter what your political philosophy.”
Then there are disturbing quality-of-life impacts of dramatically increasing the number of trains: snarled traffic, railroad crossing gates closed for hours as the mile-long trains pass through. Train traffic would triple or quadruple in Billings, causing the rail crossing gates to be lowered for eight to ten hours per day when the trains are running at full capacity, according to opponents. In Missoula, the Madison Street Crossing is one of the only entrances to downtown, and there is a fire station one block away. Blocking that crossing for hours per day would seriously impede the ability of people, and fire trucks, to enter and exit the city.
Finally, there’s mercury, a deadly neurotoxin. Coal power plants are a major source of mercury pollution. While new federal regulations are cutting down on mercury emissions from U.S. coal plants, such regulations are virtually non-existent in Asia. While much of the mercury falls out near where it is emitted, some of it escapes into the atmosphere and circulates the planet, falling out in rain and snow to be ingested by humans, fish and other species. “For anglers and people in the West and Northwest who care about the outdoors, this is a huge issue,” says Kassie Rohrbach of the National Wildlife Federation’s Dirty Fuels campaign. More than half of the mercury pollution in lakes in the Northwest, which has few coal power plants, comes from Asia.
All this comes to lght in “Momenta,” a rough cut of which screened at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, Calif., in January. The film’s producers hope to launch it nationally this summer on iTunes and show it at film festivals nationwide. The inclusion of Jones and Anker, plus snowboard stars Nate Holland of Sand Point, and Lucas Debari of Bellingham, as well as Aspen skier Gretchen Bleiler, is meant to rally a younger snowsports audience. Instead of snow porn, call it cause porn.
“I didn’t need to read a science report or see an ‘Inconvenient Truth.’ It’s been very clear to me that the mountains are changing,” Jones says in the film. “Climate change is happening now. If you compare what a normal winter was 10 years ago and what a normal winter is now, it’s very different.”
Filmmakers raised money for “Momenta” on Kickstarter and received donations from POW backers including the founder of Snocru, a smartphone app for skiers and boarders. Snocru founder Ed Lewis says his interest in funding the film had nothing to do with the impact of coal trains or ports on the Pacific Northwest. It was about fighting coal and climate change. “I don’t have children but I hope to, and I want my kids to be able to ski and enjoy snow.”
The port proposals are now undergoing federal, state and local review, with the outcome uncertain. In a blow to the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal at Cherry Point outside of Bellingham, Goldman Sachs announced in January that it was pulling out its financing from the project.
“This is not a story of good versus evil. It’s a story of an energy transition,” says POW board member and Aspen Skiing Company sustainability director Auden Schendler. “Coal has provided America with its prosperity. It was why we could have a vibrant ski industry. Coal people aren’t bad. But now we understand the problem with carbon and we can’t continue to burn coal, period.”
Coal industry and port backers say digging new mines and building new ports would create middle-class jobs in a time of high unemployment. In Bellingham, which lost more than a thousand blue-collar jobs when a paper plant closed, union workers are rallying support. The national AFL-CIO union and its Washington chapter, meanwhile, are lobbying state, federal and local officials in support of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which supporters say would create 1,250 jobs.
For Anker, who narrates “Momenta,” the jobs argument is bogus. He says, the nation could create vast numbers of jobs by investing in efficiency upgrades and other clean energy projects that both lower carbon emissions and deliver environmental benefits. “It doesn’t make sense to send our coal to China only to get it back in the form of mercury pollution and climate change,” Anker says. But only time will tell which train the nation boards.
Paul Tolme is an environmental journalist and ski writer who lives in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., which as of January was experiencing its third-straight sub-par snow year—a glimpse of the future as predicted by climate scientists.