Mont. Land Board Shrugs Off Coal Protest's Request

MATT GOURAS

HELENA, Mont. (AP) â¿¿ The weeklong coal protest that wraps up Monday at Montana's Capitol doesn't seem to be having much impact on the state officials in charge of leasing the state's resources for development.

The protesters generally oppose coal development, but specifically want the Land Board to reject development of the massive Otter Creek coal tracts despised by environmentalists who argue its use will irrevocably harm the environment.

The board of five statewide elected officials decided in a split 2010 vote to lease the coal to St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc. for $86 million up front â¿¿ and much more once the coal is mined. That vote came after protesters were taken out of the room in handcuffs.

As far as Gov. Brian Schweitzer is concerned, the issue is settled.

"Is what they are asking me, is to give Arch Coal their $86 million back?" said Schweitzer, who chairs the Land Board and leaves office at year's end. "The Land Board has made its decision."

The governor said he advises coal opponents that the resource will still be mined from somewhere if Montana doesn't supply it. He argues Montana, which stands to get billions if fully developed, should profit as long as coal is used for a fuel source.

"There are boilers being built all over the world that will be burn coal for the next 30 years," Schweitzer said. "Should we just stand back and watch our competitors supply that coal?"

The Land Board earlier this month moved ahead with another coal deal that would expand the Bull Mountain Mine, despite opposition from protest organizers with the Missoula-based Blue Skies Campaign. The group said its larger request is for the state to reject the much more massive Otter Creek project.

Schweitzer's successors, and others elected to the so-called Land Board seats, could have another whack at Otter Creek â¿¿ but it appears unlikely the board will change its mind.

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