Montana’s Coal Export Action and the Need for an Increased Guild Presence in the Fossil Fuel Hinterlands

By Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, Robert Gentry, Larry Hildes, and Karen Weill

Montana contains over one-quarter of the coal reserves in the United States. Coal companies which are already actively mining throughout the state plan to capitalize on the growing global energy shortage by ramping up extraction, expanding rail lines to the Pacific coast, and shipping coal to Asia. The prospect of increased coal extraction and shipping has mobilized environmental activists throughout the Northwest and NLG members are supporting them every step of the way. 

Activists in Washington and Oregon are challenging the proposed coal ports along the coast while communities along the railroad lines are doing their part to oppose the project, which would have huge health and environmental impacts. Activists are using a variety of tactics, from municipal resolutions to civil disobedience. Guild members Larry Hildes and Karen Weill began by working with protesters focused on the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point, in the pair’s home state of Washington, but Montana legal support proved harder to organize.

Montana has little in the way of visible Guild presence, so anti-coal organizers contacted Guild chapters in neighboring states months ahead of a planned week of civil disobedience in August 2012. Fortunately, with support from the National Office, Northwest members were able to assemble a legal team including Montana Guild lawyers Bob Gentry, Summer Nelson, and Craig Shannon.

Montana doesn’t make it easy for out-of-state attorneys to appear in court. The state’s pro hace vice rules require an out-of-state attorney to pay $345 per case, making local counsel necessary not only for meeting the requirements, but also for maintaining the meager funds of grassroots activists.  The rules also limit a pro hace vice attorney from appearing more than twice without major cause so, in the long run, legal support for these kinds of actions should really be home grown.

Nevertheless, the idea of stopping the coal at its source drew activists from 16 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces to Helena, Montana’s capital, to pressure the State Land Board (SLB) to stop leasing public land to coal companies. Hosted by the Montana-based Blue Skies Campaign and supported by several national climate justice groups, the Coal Export Action promised eight days of civil disobedience at the offices of the governor and secretary of state, both SLB members.

During the protests, the legal team put in long days, acting as Legal Observers® at marches, conducting Know Your Rights briefings for each group of arrestees (the week saw 23 people arrested and charged with misdemeanor trespass) and handling jail support and arraignments. Fortunately, the activists staffing the jail support line were incredible. Also, the Helena Police Department’s incident commander for the week appeared to respect the right to political expression, as evidenced by the limited police presence at the protest site.

Issues did not arise until the third day of civil disobedience, when one of the activists declined to give employment and marital status information during booking in the county jail. The following day, the county jail staff forced the issue again, this time by requesting social security numbers during booking, which new arrestees refused to give. Jail staff told arrestees that they could not see the judge until they were booked and that they could not be booked until they gave this information. 

In hindsight, the legal team should have tracked the information that booking officers requested from each group of arrestees in order to brief subsequent groups on what to expect to during booking, and to monitor any change in booking protocols as the week of protest went on.

All 23 activists who sat in pled not guilty. They plan to put the coal companies and the State Land Board on trial. Organizers from several of the national climate justice groups were among the accused, hopefully ensuring continued national support for the Montana activists. Rick Bass, a Montana author, also participated and the saga of his criminal case will likely continue to draw media attention to the need to resist Big Coal.