A harsh reality in coal country - with or without Trump
Colstrip, Montana, has been a poster child for the kind of coal mining community that looked to Donald Trump to bring back the industry and save their town. But four years later, on the eve of a Joe Biden presidency, the only thing that’s clear is that saving coal - and Colstrip - was never going to be that simple.
On Wednesday, 4 November, the day after a US presidential election without a definitive winner, Jason Small sat on the darkened patio of the Whiskey Gulch Saloon contemplating his own unclear political future. Under an inky sky dotted with stars shining with a brilliance only possible in far-flung towns like this one, Small’s phone screen lit up his face as he scrolled the latest voting results.
“I think the precincts that have no numbers back are going to be heavily in my favour,” he said. “I’m not wanting to call it early because you just never know.”
Small - who is anything but, standing 6ft 4in tall with a barrel chest and a booming voice - was up several points in his bid for a second state senate term representing four counties in south-eastern Montana, including two Indian reservations. As a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, he is somewhat of a political anomaly, one of just a handful of elected indigenous politicians who are Republican. His opponent in the race was another Native candidate, a Democrat.
“There’s a lot of misguided views about Republicans hating Native Americans and stuff like that. And that’s not the case,” he said. “I’ve been one heck of a liaison.”
That evening, Small was still dressed in a sweatshirt, smudged jeans and work boots having come straight from an 11-hour shift at the coal-burning Colstrip Power Plant, a massive green and tan edifice whose four smokestacks loom over the town. Not long after he arrived at the Whiskey Gulch, two of his fellow boilermakers joined him for a beer. All three supported Donald Trump for re-election. With chagrin, they had been watching the news that Joe Biden was inching towards 270 electoral votes.
“With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris getting in there, then you feel like that’s gonna be the end of coal. They straight out said it,” said Ryan Hunter, who’s worked at the Colstrip plant for 17 years. “What’s going to happen when it’s all done and over with? There won’t be much here.”
The Colstrip plant is fed by a nearby open-pit strip mine, and together, this so-called “mine to mouth” operation employs about 650 workers at its peak - the very jobs that Trump vowed to save during his 2016 campaign. A month before election day this year, Department of Energy secretary Dan Brouillette came to town and remarked that plants like Colstrip were being retired too quickly, calling it a “very important facility to us”. That was encouraging to hear in a city where coal energy is pretty much the sole economic driver, making up as much as 80% of its tax revenue.
It’s not hard to understand why the residents want to hang on. Because of coal, this tiny city boasts a $12m annual budget, which translates into excellent schools, immaculate city parks and gleaming recreation facilities. The fire and police departments are fully staffed, crime and property taxes are low - there’s even a nine-hole public golf course situated under wide open skies, amid red-striped rock formations and the rolling, arid steppe. The average salary is roughly double the statewide average.
“If you were walking down the side of the street and you fell down on the sidewalk, the next car over is gonna stop, pick you up and try to figure out what’s going on, and help you out,” said Small. “That’s how these people are. They’re salt of the earth… That’s what we’re trying to save.”
Saving coal and electing Republicans is nearly synonymous here. If you drove up and down the tidy streets of Colstrip earlier that day - a town of less than 2,300 residents with one gas station and one grocery store - “TRUMP 2020” and “Montana for Trump” flags were fluttering over a few front stoops. But far more prevalent were signs that read, “Colstrip United”, the name of a pro-coal group of residents founded to push back on environmentalist rhetoric about the town. Many businesses in town hang signs that say things like, “Coal Keeps Us Cooking,” and “Coal Keeps the Doors Open”.
Locals were incensed by Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan and its mandate that the state of Montana cut its carbon emissions by 47% by 2030. The plant’s closure would have been an inevitability to meet that goal. When a newly inaugurated President Trump withdrew the country from the Paris climate accord and set about dismantling Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency policies, workers were thrilled. They eagerly awaited further changes that could potentially save the town.
But salvation for coal never arrived. More megawatts of coal power were retired during the Trump administration than the last four years of the Obama presidency, and in 2019, the US mined only 706m tonnes of coal, the lowest level since the 1970s. That same year, two of the companies who own a share of the energy output from Colstrip announced that they were shuttering their portion of the plant, known as Units 1 and 2. Although closure has been talked about for years, when it actually happened the town was stunned. “It’s like losing a family member,” one woman told a reporter at the time.
Those closures led Hunter to move his family to Arizona, where he’s originally from. Although he still has a job in Colstrip and travels there to work, he no longer plans to raise his family there. He worries the local high school won’t even exist four years from now, when his oldest son would be graduating.
“It’s been trickling away here for 10 years, watching this town get a little bit smaller, get a little bit smaller,” he said.
At the same time, he still owns a house and a small business in Colstrip that he’s been trying to sell for months. There haven’t been any takers.
“Say President Trump wins re-election. Yeah, he could possibly try to put a stall on this for a while,” said Hunter. “But the end is still inevitable.”
Colstrip Mayor John Williams spent election day doing chores around the house, trimming his trees, and only intermittently tuning into coverage of the 2020 race. As Biden crept closer to victory, he felt none of the optimism he had experienced four years ago, when the surprise election of Trump held the promise of a friendlier EPA and the unwinding of what Williams saw as unnecessary regulations that were hurting the bottom line of the power companies that own the Colstrip plant.
“Everything in our community is energy related. And if Biden gets in there, I see there’s a lot of challenges,” he said. “I feel the threat is greater on the federal level.”
Indeed, President-elect Biden said he plans to weave aggressive climate change policies into many facets of his administration, from his Department of Justice to the Department of Agriculture. He has pledged to re-join the Paris Agreement on his first day in office and will appoint former Secretary of State John Kerry to a newly created, cabinet-level position as a special envoy for climate. Biden also campaigned on a pledge to achieve zero-emission power in the US by 2035, a timeline that could directly impact the Colstrip plant.
Williams - a former plant administrator who helped incorporate the city in 1998 and has served as its mayor for the majority of the years since - warned that sun-setting coal plants too quickly will lead to brownouts and rate hikes for the people whose homes are currently powered by Colstrip. He said that his residents will not be the only ones suffering the loss of coal tax dollars, the entire state will feel that pain.
However, when he started talking about who is to blame, he sounded just as angry at the companies who own the plant as with any politician or environmental group.
“I feel that those large, multibillion [dollar] companies that have made millions and millions of dollars as a result of the efforts of the people that live and work in Colstrip place little value on what their futures are,” he said. “They understand the debt that they owe to this community. They understand it, whether they’ll recognise it with actions, I doubt.”
Some of the anger in town stems from the abrupt closure of Units 1 and 2. The Colstrip plant’s four “units” are jointly owned by six different companies, all of which pay for a percentage of the power generated. Four are out-of-state companies, meaning the majority of the power generated in Colstrip goes to Washington and Oregon states, which have considerably more liberal governments than Montana.
In 2016, Oregon passed a law that would eliminate the use of coal-fired power by 2030. In 2019, the governor of Washington signed a law that would sunset the state’s reliance on coal power even faster, by 2025. And under a settlement with the environmental group Sierra Club over violations of the Clean Air Act, two of the plant’s owners - Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy - agreed they would close half of the plant’s units by 2022. They shocked the city when they moved up the closure to 2020, saying the units were no longer “economically viable”.
Puget Sound Energy pledged $10m to help transition the town, saying in a statement to BBC that it will “remain in Colstrip for years through the decommissioning and remediation work”, but workers felt they were caught flat-footed.
“There’s no transparency with these companies,” said Hunter. “They’re just like, ‘Oh, we’re done.’ And it just leaves everybody hanging, nobody gets a chance to try and plan for anything.”
The other out-of-state owners could withdraw from Colstrip as early as 2025, leaving two Montana-based companies who - while they have expressed interest in keeping the plant open for years to come - have not said publicly how they plan to do so.
In a statement to the BBC, Montana-based Talen Energy said it is focusing on “keeping Colstrip Units 3 and 4 economically viable amid the changing policy landscape.
“We continue to be guided by doing what is right for our employees and the community.”
At the time of the closure, state senator Duane Ankney told a local reporter that he’d once believed that Obama’s Clean Power Plan would be the demise of Colstrip. But now it is a game of economics, not politics.