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Montana Coal Protest Ends With Little Impact On State Officials' Otter Creek Decision

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — 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 — 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 — but it appears unlikely the board will change its mind.

The board, as part of the lease deal, required Arch Coal Inc. to bring its environmental permit back to the board for review. The company is now working with the Department of Environmental Quality on those permits, which state officials estimate could take two to three years to complete.

Four current Land Board members — including two who opposed the lease deal with Arch — are running for election.

The list is topped by Attorney General Steve Bullock, who is running to replace Schweitzer as governor. The Democrat voted no on the current lease deal with Arch, arguing it was not lucrative enough for the state. Bullock had supported an earlier lease that paid the state more.

But protesters, many whom come from out of state, may not find an ally in Bullock when the deal comes up again.

Bullock, as part of his obligation as the state's attorney general, has since defended the lease deal in court against environmentalists trying to oppose it in the legal system. Bullock's campaign spokesman said that Bullock would "carefully review" any materials, but indicated he could stand by the state's lease with Arch.

"Now that it is leased, he would not vote against it based on his earlier objection that the state didn't receive enough revenues at the time," said spokesman Kevin O'Brien.

The Republican running for governor, former congressman Rick Hill, also voiced support through a spokesman. Hill has been even more vocal in his support of rapid coal development on the campaign trail.

"Rick realizes the economic opportunity Montana has in Otter Creek, a project that would bring thousands of new, high-paying jobs to Montana and billions in tax revenue," said spokesman Brock Lowrance.

Both of Bullock's potential successors as attorney general — Democrat Pam Bucy and Republican Tim Fox — have voiced support for Otter Creek.

"No, the protest has not changed my support for the responsible development of our natural resources, on Montana's terms, and for the benefit of Montana citizens," Bucy said in a statement.

Fox said the land board needs to strongly support development so that everyone knows it won't stand in the way. In general, Republicans seeking the land board seats are more forceful in their support of developing.

"After permitting is completed in adherence with Montana law, I will vote yes for Otter Creek coal," Fox said.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch has been a supporter of the Otter Creek deal, but she has not committed to necessarily doing so again. Her office said any future decisions on Otter Creek will depend on the facts at that time, and will take into consideration public comment along with the legal and constitutional requirements of the board.

McCulloch's Republican opponent Brad Johnson, who held the office prior to 2008, has been supportive of Otter Creek.

State schools superintendent Denise Juneau, the only land board member to twice vote against the lease with Arch, will review the permit when it comes back before the board, a spokeswoman said. But challenger Sandy Welch's campaign, said the Republican will support "the responsible development of the Otter Creek tracts."

State Auditor Monica Lindeen, one of the yes votes in 2010, said she will continue to support "responsible" development, but also said she "will continue to listen to all sides and support what is best for Montana."

Lindeen's opponent, Republican Rep. Derek Skees, said there is no doubt he would support Otter Creek development.

"We have to get into Montana coal," said Skees, who now works as a project consultant in the quickly-developing eastern Montana oil fields.

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