The domestic market, pressured by cheap natural gas and hemmed by a soft economy, is declining. U.S. coal consumption is at its lowest level since 1995. Asia's energy demands, in contrast, are leaping, and the Powder River Basin is well-placed to capitalize on the globalization of what was once a mostly domestic market.
The basin, stretching across eastern Montana and Wyoming, is one of the largest coal reserves in the world. It is certainly the cheapest to mine, with coal sitting near the surface and pricing at near $9 per ton at the mine lately, said Thomas Michael Power, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana who studies the economics of energy.
"There isn't any other large source of coal in the world that can produce coal that cheaply," he said.
Appalachian coal, In contrast, costs $50 to $60 per ton to extract, while Australia's coal - mostly underground - is being delivered to ports for between $80 and $100 a ton, Power said.
"Montana would definitely be in the cross-hairs and could get quite a bit more chewed up as these coal trains go rumbling through all the population areas," Powers said.
Billings has struggled for years to stem train noise and the traffic hassles, with limited success. It has explored various combinations of raising and lowering tracks and downtown thoroughfares, only to be stymied every time by the costs: $25 million to $160 million, depending on the details. Rerouting the tracks around town would cost up to $200 million, before necessary right-of-way acquisitions, said Erin Claunch, a city engineer.
"We're lucky we've never really had a train that tipped over downtown," said Jim Ronquillo, a city council member who represents the city's south side. "If it does, you're going to isolate us for a long time."
The issue is more than train wrecks.
Like many cities, Billings' downtown is starting to revive after several hard decades, with local businesses investing more than $100 million in improvements over the past 10 years, said Gulick, the architect.
That investment is also reflected in jobs growth, noted Larry Swanson, director of the University of Montana's Center for the American West. Mining and agriculture may be integral in Montana's history, but today health services and high-tech industries drive the economy in Billings - and throughout much of the state.
A sharp rise in coal train traffic, Swanson warned, could endanger those gains.
"This is the kind of economy that Billings has been building for two decades," he said.
"It had better pay attention to that."
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This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer@DailyClimate.org