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Montana Town Exemplifies Coal Country's Uncertain Future


President Trump says the Paris climate agreement is bad for the U.S. coal industry, and he says he happens to love coal miners. His decision to withdraw won't have much of an impact on hard-hit coal towns, though. NPR's Nathan Rott takes us to the home of the second-largest coal-fired power plant in the West.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Colstrip, Mont., is exactly what it sounds like. It's a coal town built next to a strip mine with a massive coal-fired power plant at its center. Drive anywhere in this town of 2,300, and you'll see it's four steaming stacks stabbing up into the sky.

LORI SHAW: When I was a little kid, I actually thought it was a castle. And I thought the princess of Colstrip lived there.

ROTT: Lori Shaw could lay claim to that title, the Princess of Colstrip, herself, and she wouldn't hear many arguments. She's 25, wears her hair in a long blond braid and has the town's name tattooed in swooping cursive on her right wrist.

I don't think we've passed a person that hasn't waved at you so far.

SHAW: Yeah, that's Colstrip for you.

ROTT: Shaw is the co-founder of Colstrip United, an effort she helped to start about a year and a half ago to help give supporters of coal and coal workers more of a public voice.

SHAW: A lot of people just reduce these sorts of things down to numbers and money and this and that, but we are people out here.

ROTT: It was good timing. Last year, two of the utilities at Colstrip settled the lawsuit brought by environmental groups over air quality. The agreement - 2 of the power plant's 4 stacks, the older two, would close by 2022. And there's since been indications that it could happen sooner. Shaw's husband is an accountant at the mine, and she's worried that he will lose his job.

SHAW: You kind of get used to it. I like to refer to it as something called crisis fatigue. You're so used to being on the edge for so long. It's almost like you forget to panic anymore even though it is panic worthy. You're just like, yeah, I know. We might lose everything next month. What's new?

ROTT: You hear a lot of this in Colstrip - a feeling that the town's future is out of its control and that there's another shoe just waiting to drop. John Williams, the town's longtime mayor, tries to be a voice of optimism.

JOHN WILLIAMS: With Trump in there and doing some of the things that he's going to do to eliminate some of those needless regulations, I think it's going to make a positive impact.

ROTT: Williams has applauded Trump's plans to repeal Obama-era regulations on the coal industry, but he also knows that there are factors Trump can't change. He can't change the energy market.

WILLIAMS: Part of it is because of the price of natural gas has made it more competitive.

ROTT: And he can't change the fact that increasingly, the two biggest customers for Colstrip's energy, people in Washington and Oregon, don't want coal-fired power anymore.

RON ROBERTS: Many of our customers are more interested in having green energy come through. They're more interested in renewables.

ROTT: Ron Roberts is with Puget Sound Energy, 1 of the 6 utilities that has a stake in Colstrip. Puget provides electricity to more than a million homes in Washington, a state that, like Oregon, has committed to cutting carbon pollution regardless of federal plans.

ROBERTS: The Trump administration and the policies that he's heading towards don't have a significant impact on what we're trying to do. As a utility, we always try to plan many years out into the future.

ROTT: Robert says that doesn't mean Colstrip is going to dry up and blow away. Neither state is going to drop coal-fired power overnight, and the two newer units at Colstrip's generating station are more efficient and economical. Roberts thinks they have a long future ahead. But that doesn't soothe the worry in Colstrip, nor does it change the anger people here feel towards the coasts.

HUGH MANNIX: We live out here in the sticks. And automatically, you're dumb.

ROTT: Hugh Mannix is part of an older contingent that meets most mornings at the only coffee shop in Colstrip. They call themselves the Rusty Zippers. And most feel like they've been betrayed by Seattle, the Pacific Northwest, places that were built on the energy Colstrip provided.

MANNIX: We can put up with all the pollution, and they get the gravy. And this went on for 40 years. And we took it. We ran with it. We made it successful. And now these prima donnas out there can just walk away. Well, no - pay your way out of it now.

ROTT: Mannix and others here would like to see those states help pay for Colstrip future, whatever that may be. They're not giving up on coal, not even close to it. But they know that changes are inevitably coming. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Colstrip, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.