Train in Missoula

Missoula, Montana has a nice ring to it.  A bit alliterative, it is a slightly liberal town in an otherwise very conservative state.  The region of Missoula is a relatively flat area which was once a glacial lake.  Remnants of that large lake exist today, in Flathead lake and Lake Pend Oreille.  As long as 12,000 years ago, people inhabited this area, including Salish, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Blackfeet and Shoshone tribes, although known settlements date from around 3500 BCE (Before Common Era).  French fur trappers discovered it and found that they were not necessarily welcome.  In fact, the eastern valley entrance to the region was referred to as the “Porte d’Enfer” or gate of hell, due to the many human skeletons lying about from killed trappers and explorers, and aboriginal people embroiled in battles.  Lewis and Clark explored this area in 1805.  By 1860, a small settlement was established five miles west of present-day Missoula, with the name Hell Gate Village.  In 1866, the center of town moved east five miles to be closer to a water source for lumber and flour mills.  The name Missoula comes from a Salish word, “nmesuletkw”, apparently pronounced “Nemissoolatakoo”, and meaning “the place of frozen water”.  The area was seen as an ideal route for a train to pass through to the west coast.  In about 1870, construction of the Northern Pacific Railway began and the final golden spike was driven by Ulysses S. Grant in Western Montana, September 8, 1883.  It extended from the great lakes through Missoula and ended at Puget Sound near Takoma, Washington.  The story of the railroad is filled with adventure, hardship and conflict.  The railway led to rapid development along the entire line.

Missoula was granted the right to become the home of the University of Montana by agreeing not to challenge Helena to be the state capitol.  It was established in 1893 on land on the south side of the Clark Fork River.  When I visited in June, 2016, I was told by a number of locals that the university is what makes the town different from other places in Montana.  Of particular note, the first woman elected to US Congress was from Missoula.  Jeannette Rankin, born in Missoula in 1880, was elected to congress in 1916, before women had the right to vote.  She was a pacifist, and during both her first term, and again after election again in 1940, she voted against entering the first world war and the second.  She stated that she could not go to war, and so she would not vote to send any one else.  She was a fighter, though, for the right for women to vote.

I and my whole extended family traveled to Missoula in June, 2016 for the wedding of my nephew, Greg.  I had not been to Montana before, and did not know what to expect.  While there is an airport in Missoula, my wife and I decided to fly in to Spokane, at the eastern edge of Washington.  We drove north from Spokane, around the northern shore of Lake Pend Oreille and the town of of Sandpoint, Idaho.  From there, we drove southeast, following the course of the Clark Fork river all the way to Missoula.  This is a beautiful drive, with scenic mountains in the background, some snow-capped, and the rushing river to our right.

Scenic view of Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula.

Scenic view of Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula.

Even though Greg would be getting married in a couple of days, he was very happy to go for a run with me the morning after we arrived.  Our first run was along the Clark Fork river, and past the campus of the University of Montana, home of the “Grizzlies”.  There is a nice trail along the river which goes for miles, and makes for a great running trail.  There is a very large “M” on a hillside above the campus, with a switchback trail leading up to it.  It is a favorite of visitors to the campus to go for a hike up this hill.  We, my family, considered it, but thought it looked a bit unrewarding just to go see the “M”.  We still wanted to enjoy the trails around Missoula.

University of Montana "M" trail.

University of Montana “M” trail.

Instead, we decided to climb up Waterworks Hill, a not-too-steep trail on the north side of Missoula overlooking the town.  We all gathered together, no small feat for us, and headed through town to the base of the trail.

At the entrance to the Waterworks Hill Trail.

At the entrance to the Waterworks Hill Trail.

The trail goes up a rolling set of hills, with grass and native flowering plants along the way.  One gets the feeling this is a sensitive ecologic zone.  The hillside is covered with these plants, but if they were not there the whole side of the hill could come sliding down in a heavy rain and inundate Missoula.  It is also a risk for avalanches onto the the homes below during the winter months.  Sheep are used at various times during the year as a means of keeping some of the invasive species down.  How the sheep know the right plants to eat, I am not sure.   As we ascended, the surrounding hills came into view.

On the way up Waterworks Hill.

On the way up Waterworks Hill.

A few man-made objects presented an opportunity for the group to look like the cast of a Shakespeare Play.

The cast of the play.

That guy in the middle is the main character.

Nearing the top of the first hill, one is greeted with a great view of Missoula and the surrounding mountains.

Missoula as seen from Waterworks Hill.

Missoula as seen from Waterworks Hill.

This brings me to my main topic.  One can see the train stretching across the scene in the photo.  Trains of several hundred cars up to a mile and a half long pass through Missoula many times a day.  When the Northern Pacific Railway began, the freight was wheat, farm equipment, and passengers.  Since 1970, it was incorporated into the conglomerate known as Burlington Northern, and it carries a different cargo today.  On our way back into town, we were stopped by the train heading eastward back to its origin.  Empty coal cars rattled and screeched as the train passed eastward through the town, and automobiles idled at the railroad crossing.  Finally, the caboose was in sight, passed by, and the gates opened.  I was moved to find out more about these trains and their cargo.  I asked my cousin, George, who moved to Montana a few years ago from Los Angeles, and now lives in Missoula.  He told me the trains were coming from Wyoming, from an area called the Powder River Basin.

Pronghorn, Bison National Reserve, Montana

Pronghorn, Bison National Reserve, Montana

The Powder River Basin is a geologic area in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, 200 by 120 miles in size.  It is the largest coal mining area in the United States, and produces a type of coal called sub-bituminous.  About sixty million years ago, this region was largely a shallow sea, and received three meters of rainfall per year.  There was a large amount of plant growth, and due to the geography, dead plants did not wash away.  Instead, they became peat bogs which were eventually crushed under dirt and rock to become coal, as the region dried up.  It is estimated this area contains enough coal to light the U.S. almost to the twenty third century.  It was not of great importance compared with coal from Appalachia, until concern was raised about sulfur dioxide, or SO2.  The coal from this region produces about 8,500 BTU’s per pound, versus 12,500 BTU’s per pound for Appalachian coal.  But the SO2 content of the Wyoming coal is very low compared with the coal from Kentucky and West Virginia.  Sulfur dioxide is widely used as a food preservative, in wine making, and in medicine.  It is considered safe for human consumption, except for young asthmatics in whom it may precipitate an attack.  It is a part of normal plant and animal physiology.  However, released into the air from burning coal, it can become sulfuric acid, the cause of “acid rain”.  As acid rain became recognized as a serious threat to the environment, the US government in 1995 developed the Acid Rain Program, a market-based approach to reducing SO2 emissions.  This made coal from the Powder River Basin very competitive with Appalachian coal, since “scrubbing” costs were much less to burn Powder River Basin coal, even though it had less heat output.  The coal in this area is mined by strip mining techniques, and it is done on a very large scale.  An overview in a website called The Daily Climate describes the operation very well.  Of the one billion tons of coal used each year in the United States, about 400 million tons comes from the Powder River Basin.  The amount exported to Asian ports is relatively small, around 10-20 million tons per year.  However, the price offered can be up to ten times the domestic price of about $10 per ton for Powder River Basin coal.  The cost to the mine companies, though, is very cheap.  The coal is owned by us, the people.  It is sold via the Bureau of Land Management to the coal mining companies for around 20 cents per ton.  Since the price received from Asian countries is quite high, as high as $100 a ton in the last few years, the mining companies are doing quite well.

missoulatrain960x200

Like all energy production, though, these prices can change radically and quickly.  If China or India slow their use of energy due to a cooling economy, as has happened over the last two years, the production of coal exceeds demand.  Also, if prices are high, other producers around the globe including Australia, Russia, Indonesia, India and South Africa up their production.  All this has happened resulting in lower prices for coal in the Pacific Rim.  However, as seen by the steady train traffic through Missoula, the coal from Powder River Basin, because of its low sulfur content among other attributes, is still considered desirable, and is still being exported.  One of the factors in exporting this coal is the limited port availability near San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.  These areas are reluctant to invest in increased port capacity due to the market volatility.  Other factors influencing the building of these facilities include the rights of native American tribes.  In some cases, the tribes come down on different sides of the argument.  Producers of the coal feel limited by the port capacity, and would like to see it increase.  Of interest, too, is that while a large amount of coal is exported from the Powder River Basin, it is a tiny fraction of the coal imported to China, South Korea, and other parts of Southeast Asia, currently about 4% of these area’s imports.  While coal demand in the US is falling due to the increase in natural gas from new production, it is difficult to transport gas overseas, and so coal use is still a major source of energy in Asian countries.

Naturally, Missoulans and others on the paths of these coal trains are concerned about the environmental impact.  There have been a number of protests in Missoula like that seen in the video below.  Diesel fumes and dust from the coal cars are concerns.  The Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with studying the environmental impact of the train traffic through these areas.

I knew nothing about the Powder River Basin, and very little about coal, before researching this topic.  As I dug deeper into the issues surrounding the use, mining and transport, and sales and world market for coal, the issues and side branches of this topic became exponentially more complex.  I do hope Missoula stays as livable and beautiful a place as it was for my very short visit in June.  For anyone who wishes to do their own reading on this interesting topic I have listed a few of the resources I used.

A very informative and detailed analysis of coal exports from the US, by Sylvie Cornot-Gandolphe, Research Associate at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies:  https://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CL-21.pdf

U.S. coal prices by region, from U.S. Energy Information Administration data:  https://www.quandl.com/data/EIA/COAL-US-Coal-Prices-by-Region

U.S. Energy Information Administration coal export analysis:  https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=11791

The Daily Climate essay with impressive photos on the Powder River Basin and coal production:  http://www.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2013/12/western-coal-development

Wikipedia articles on Sulfur Dioxide and Acid Rain:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulfur_dioxide

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid_rain

 

 

 

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