The Battle for Clean Energy in Coal Country

The Battle for Clean Energy in Coal Country

By The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX

Montana has a long history of making money by extracting and exporting its natural resources, namely coal. State politicians and Montana’s largest electricity utility company seem set on keeping it that way. 

Reveal’s Jonathan Jones travels to the town of Colstrip in the southeastern part of the state. It is home to one of the largest coal seams in the country – and one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the West. He learns that Montana’s largest power company, NorthWestern Energy, has expanded its stake in the plant, even though it’s the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gas in the state. Jones speaks with Colstrip’s mayor about the importance of coal mining to the local community. He also speaks to local ranchers and a tribal official who’ve been working for generations to protect the water and land from coal development.  

Jones follows the money to the state’s capital, where lawmakers have passed some of the most extreme laws to keep the state from addressing climate change. He dives into lobbying records behind a flurry of bills that are keeping the state reliant on fossil fuels. He meets with one of the plaintiffs involved in a first-of-its-kind youth-led lawsuit. The group successfully sued Montana for violating their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment.” Jones also finds that NorthWestern is planning to build a new methane gas plant on the banks of the Yellowstone River, and the company is being met with resistance from people who live near the site. 

Finally, Jones visits the state’s largest wind farm and speaks with a renewable energy expert, who says Montana can close its coal plants, never build a new gas plant and transition to 100% clean energy while reducing electricity costs for consumers. Jones also speaks with NorthWestern’s CEO and looks at other coal communities in transition.   

This is an update of an episode that originally aired in June 2023.

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