June 25, 2024

As our Cycle the Rockies team arrived in Billings, we met with various locals to discuss ideas associated with energy and climate issues and how these concepts have affected their lives. Throughout each of these conversations I noticed a pattern in the discussions leading to the topic of coal production. Coal has played an integral role in energy consumption across the United States, but especially here in Montana. While I know that coal powers communities nationwide and is a top trade export, I found myself lacking a deep understanding for what exactly it is. This made our 16 mile bike ride to Signal Peaks Coal Mine, which we would soon have the opportunity to tour, suspenseful and exciting.

Arriving at a coal mine upon a bicycle is probably something few have done. As we rolled in, I quickly guessed that based on their profession, differences between us would likely exist. This hypothesis was confirmed as we were a group of six studying energy that came on bicycles sporting tight cycling chamois, while we were greeted by two hard-working men wearing overalls and work boots, repping the Republican slogan “Let’s go Brandon” upon their hard hats. Yet even through these differences we were greeted with kindness and hospitality.

We then sat down with managerial mine operators and the CEO of Signal Peak Energy and were given an overview of the company and their production practices through a video, and then had our initial questions answered. Signal Peaks Mine is the largest underground coal mine in the US and operates on 2,680 acres in Roundup, Montana. The company exports nearly 100% of their coal production internationally and has been in operation since 2009. It is also a private company that employs 250 people, most of whom reside in Musselshell and Yellowstone Counties. While the general numbers were interesting, I was most fascinated with the production that occurs at this massive enterprise.

We toured multiple facilities that all contributed in one way or another to the complex production process of coal. It’s funny how frequently we discuss coal in the media and through climate conversations, yet during this visit, it was actually the first time I had seen coal. I didn’t realize how light it is and that it’s actually shiny. Most importantly though, I failed to realize just how intricate the actual mining process is. In simplistic terms, coal is screened and filtered then washed before it is distributed to WestShore in Vancouver, where it is then internationally distributed. The most enjoyable part of the tour, however, was the connection we were able to form with the miners. Our tour guides, who were department managers, are incredibly passionate about the operations they facilitate, and how their work contributes to the goals of Signal Peaks. The managers wielding ten plus years of mining experience are passionate about their contribution to the US economy.

As we departed and cycled to Roundup, I reflected on the Signal Peaks experience. It was obvious to me that understanding and connecting with the required labor force of the coal mine was my biggest takeaway. Grasping the complexities surrounding a transition away from coal and to renewables, and what that looks like for the industry – especially the workers – was eye opening. If we were to end coal production immediately, our tour guides would be left either without a job or forced into a new energy technology job with little knowledge. The personal connection we experienced allowed me to fully comprehend this matter. Considering these ideas through the context of a term we’ve been discussing in class, a “just transition,” has been valuable and essential in understanding the whole climate puzzle. A just transition is defined as a process that shifts political and economic power away from an extractive economy through readdressing past mistakes and creating new relationships of power. It is an understatement to say that the tour of Signal Peaks Mine was valuable. I learned that recognizing the role job security plays in a just transition is vital in moving our systems throughout the United States towards a regenerative economy and an equitable future.

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