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Warren Buffett's Coal Problem

To run his coal trains, the billionaire investor needs to seize land from a bunch of Montana cowboys. That's not going over very well.

By Marc Gunther

There's not much talk about climate change in Montana, either--not even from those who oppose the proposed Otter Creek mine and Tongue River Railroad. The ranchers are mostly worried about how coal affects their water and the safety and health of their cattle. They especially dislike the idea that a railroad company can use eminent domain to take their property in pursuit of private gain.

"This steamrolling over people's property rights is a dangerous thing," says Nick Golder, 78, a lifelong rancher and political conservative. "Where's the public necessity to ship coal to China? Do we want to help them build up their military industrial complex on the backs of slave people?"
Clint McRae and a number of his neighbors felt so strongly about the issue that they traveled to Seattle to speak at a public hearing on the proposed coal-export terminal north of Bellingham. "The coal will go to China, the profits will go to the coal and railroad companies, and Montana will be left to pay the costs," testified Mark Fix, another Montana rancher.

Nor did climate change come up at a January hearing in the town of Lame Deer, on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. The tribal members who lined up to tell officials from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality what they thought of the Otter Creek mine had even broader concerns.

"I've got spiritual ties to this land," says Otto Braided Hair Jr., who works on the reservation. "Emotional ties. Historical ties. We're just stewards of this land." (Braided Hair is a descendant of survivors of the notorious 1864 Sand Creek massacre, in which Colorado militia attacked a village of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho.) "Is this whole place going to be turned into a black pit, and then it's gone? Are you going to have grandchildren? Are you going to have great-grandchildren? What kind of land are you going to leave them?"

Alaina Buffalo Spirit is an artist who grew up alongside the Tongue River. She spoke about how she'd recently walked along its banks, enjoying the peace. "They will rape the land, the water, the air, and then they will leave in 20 years," she said, her voice trembling. "Why ruin our land, air, water, culture, our people?"

Such appeals are unlikely to sway Montana's industry-friendly Department of Environmental Quality, which has never turned down an application for a mining permit. Opponents probably have a better shot at stopping the Tongue River Railroad, without which the mine won't be developed. That's because the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that will decide the railroad's future, is required to assess its environmental impact under the National Environmental Policy Act. Lawyers for the Tongue River Railroad will try to limit environmental review to immediate impacts on air and water, but opponents will insist that the railway's potential to unlock 20 million tons of coal a year needs to be taken into account.

"I believe that the law is very clear," says Missoula environmental lawyer Jack Tuholske, who represents the Northern Plains Resource Council and the McRaes' Rocker Six ranch. "The board needs to look at all the impact--beginning at Otter Creek, up the Tongue River, to the Burlington Northern main line, and the impact on all the communities along that line, and the export communities. They're all interrelated."

The coal industry, hell-bent on expanding its exports, will ignore global warming. But a federal agency charged with weighing the environmental consequences of a coal-carrying railroad should do better. So should America's most admired investor.

Marc Gunther is a contributing editor at Fortune who blogs at >

This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

A Candy Billionaire Solves His Nimby Problem

Photo by Lori Eanes

Forrest E. Mars Jr., the 81-year-old former copresident of his family's eponymous candy-and-food conglomerate, never gives interviews. But he has made one thing abundantly clear: Under no circumstances does he want a coal-carrying railroad to pass through his 100,000-plus-acre Montana ranch.

Mars, who is worth an estimated $17 billion, at one time allied himself with the ranchers and farmers who oppose the Tongue River Railroad, which would make possible a huge expansion of the Otter Creek coal mine. He filed lawsuits to prevent energy-exploration projects on his ranch. And he was a donor--although not a very generous one--to a local conservation group called the Northern Plains Resource Council.

"When we had a big fundraiser, he'd bring a bag of Uncle Ben's rice and some M&M toys," says Teresa Erickson, the council's staff director, who has battled the Tongue River Railroad since the 1980s.

In 2011, though, Mars took a radically different approach to his not-in-my-backyard issue. Together with Arch Coal, one of the nation's largest coal companies, and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Company, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, he bought the rights to develop the Tongue River rail line from a Billings businessman for an estimated $550 million.

Mars and his new partners then eliminated a southern stretch of the line that would have crossed his sprawling Diamond Cross Ranch. "I will not be helping you fund the current appeal or any future litigation on these issues," he wrote in a letter to the Northern Plains Resource Council dated July 18.

Mars, who lives in Virginia, doesn't spend much time at his ranch, neighbors say. Diamond Cross instead serves as a hunting lodge and dude ranch for the wealthy. A five-day hunt for trophy whitetail deer costs $7,000. M&M's, presumably, included. --M.G.

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