A Plundered Province Revisited

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DeVoto attacked the giveaway; other voices joined his in outcry; the giveaway failed. The West emerged in the postwar years with at least a chance for future self-sufficiency. Even in Montana, still under Company domination, per capita income had increased to 8 per cent above the national average by 1950. Federal programs returned to the West a portion of the wealth it had shipped eastward in the past. Agriculture thrived, enlarged by irrigation and better methods of farming in an arid land. Tourism increased and promised to become a major source of income. But the nation was hungry for energy, pollution thickened in the cities, and the coal lay under the land.

In the mid-1960’s, before the Arab oil embargo, before official recognition of the energy crisis, coal and utility and oil companies quietly began major leasing of coal lands in the northern Great Plains. Most of the rands leased were public domain, and of those leases 70 per cent went to only fifteen bidders, including Peabody Coal, Pacific Power & Light, Kerr-McGee, and subsidiaries of Continental, Shell, Sun, Gulf, and Atlantic-Richfield.

Coal production in the United States had been in sharp decline since before World War II, and there had never been much demand for Western coal, which is lower in energy content than Eastern coal. But domestic oil discoveries were declining and imports dramatically increasing, implying the eventual necessity to reconvert stationary power systems to coal. Pollution was the subject of an intensifying national debate, and pound for pound, Western coal is generally lower in sulfur content than Eastern coal. The energy companies saw the future and wanted in on the ground floor. The Department of the Interior would speculate later that one important reason for the boom in Western coal was the “desire of applicants to obtain leases before Government policy changes are initiated.” A significant policy change, in the late 1960’s, was the passage into law of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969. NEPA required an environmental impact statement for new leases; most of the Western coal leases beat NEPA to the wire.

The leases were cheap enough in any case. “An analysis of one Atlantic-Richfield lease in Wyoming,” says a report by two staff members of the National Resources Defense Council of PaIo Alto, “showed that this company paid about $.001 per ton for the coal it received.” Other leases went for as little as one dollar per acre plus seventeen and a half to twenty-five cents per ton royalty. As it had so often before, the government that DeVoto thought protected the West against itself was giving the public domain away.

Corporation negotiators, speculators, and lease brokers converged on the northern Great Plains. To assemble contiguous blocks of land they needed not only public domain leases but also the surface rights of farmers and ranchers (the United States had retained subsurface mineral rights on homesteaded land—“I guess if I stepped in a mudhole I’d be trespassing,” as one rancher quipped). They went after the necessary acquisitions with a vengeance. A standard tactic was to set neighbor against neighbor by lying about who had and had not sold his rights away. One rancher found a bullet hole in his truck. Another fired at the feet of a survey leader to drive him off his property. Thanks to Anaconda, Montana leasehounds had an ace in the hole. Anaconda had pushed a bill through the Montana legislature in 1961 authorizing eminent domain proceedings for mining for “public use.” Coal qualified under the law, and the threat of condemnation pushed many landowners to the wall. Some held out and kept their land, but many others signed.

 
 

The apparent purpose of this frenzy of leasing emerged in 1971, when the utilities industry and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation jointly published a grandiose plan for future power production on the Great Plains titled the North Central Power Study . The study was prepared without consulting state and local governments, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, or even ordinary citizens; there was no announcement or public debate. Despite NEPA, the study hardly considered environmental and social impact. Yet it proposed a massive build-up of mine-mouth generating plants on the Great Plains—forty-two such plants, half of them in Montana—that would generate 50,000 megawatts of electricity per hour and transmit most of it to Midwestern and Far Western power grids over a network of 765-kilovolt long-distance lines. To understand the scale of the proposal, consider that the notorious Four Corners complex in New Mexico, whose plume of dirty smoke the astronauts returning from the moon saw on the earth long before they could distinguish any other sign of human habitation, generates only 2,075 megawatts of electricity per hour, yet in doing so, despite pollution controls, spews out 90 tons of particulates, 375 tons of sulfur oxides, and 214 tons of nitrogen oxides a day. Four Corners is the largest stationary source of pollution in the world. The North Central Power Study proposed to multiply its effects twenty-five times—by 1980. By the year 2000 it foresaw a quadrupling of 1980 levels, to 200,000 megawatts.