Fossil fuels, climate change and Montana's Exxon Mobil pipeline spill

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"We're a disaster area," Alexis Bonogofsky told me, "and it's going to take a long time to get over it."

Bonogofsky and her partner, Mike Scott, are all over the news this week, telling the world about how Montana's Exxon Mobil pipeline spill has fouled their goat ranch and is threatening the health of their animals.

But my conversation with Bonogofsky was four full days before the pipeline began pouring oil into the Yellowstone River. And no, it's not that she's psychic; she was talking about this year's historic flooding.

"It's unbelievable," she said. "It's like nothing I've experienced in my lifetime. It destroyed houses; people died; crops didn't get in the fields.... We barely were able to get our hay crop in."

Everyone agrees that the two disasters -- the flooding of the Yellowstone River and the oil spill in the riverbed -- are connected. According to Exxon officials, the high and fast-moving river has four times its usual flow this year, which has hampered cleanup and prevented their workers from reaching the exact source of the spill. Also thanks to the flooding, the oiled water has breached the riverbanks, inundating farmland, endangering animals, killing crops and contaminating surface water. And the rush of water appears to be carrying the oil toward North Dakota.

Government and company officials have also speculated that the flooding may even have caused the spill in the first place. Recent testing showed the pipeline was buried five to eight feet under the riverbed, but officials suspect that raging water may have exposed the pipe, leaving it vulnerable to fast-moving debris.

So the flooding may have caused the pipeline spill. But here is the really uncomfortable question: Did the pipeline cause the flooding? Not this one particular pipeline, of course, but all the pipelines, and all the coal trains, and all the refineries and the power plants they supply? Was the flooding that has made the oil spill so much worse caused by the burning of oil and other fossil fuels? Put bluntly, do these dual disasters have the same root?

This is an unanswerable question, since no one weather event can be traced to climate change. Still, in Montana, it's hard to deny that global warming is happening. The state is home to Glacier National Park, which had 150 large glaciers in 1850 and now has just 25, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

And we do know that Montana's flooding was caused by record rainfall and by runoff from heavy snowfall. Though climate deniers (some of them funded by Exxon) love to point to freak snowstorms as "proof" that the planet isn't warming, the opposite is often true: In some places, the warmer the air, the more water vapour accumulates in the atmosphere and the more moisture comes down in the form of rain or snow.

As Scott put it to me, "We went from drought to rain forest in just a few months. The weather has just been bizarre."

Despite all this, Montana is in the midst of a fossil fuel frenzy. The state's governor may be shaking his fist at Exxon now, but he has championed virtually every fossil fuel project that has crossed his desk, from a vast new coal mine near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, to new rail lines that would help ship Montana's coal to China, to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

Bonogofsky and Scott are at the forefront of the fight against this carbon-centric vision of Montana's future. When they aren't growing food or taking care of their herd of goats, both are full-time environmental activists: she with the National Wildlife Federation, he with the Sierra Club. But they don't just fight the coal and oil companies; they also work hard to show their fellow Montanans that there are other ways to get energy and create jobs besides drilling and mining, ones that don't turn vast swaths of the state into sacrifice zones.

That is precisely what Bonogofsky was doing when the spill happened. She had arranged for 25 people on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation to learn how to install solar air heaters in their homes as part of the EPA's "climate showcase communities" program. She and Scott have also tried to live their beliefs on their farm, which just a few days ago was still a peaceful oasis circled by Billings' three oil refineries and one coal-fired power plant.

"We're trying to be self-sufficient," she told me. "We want to grow all our own food and grow food for other people, not be dependent on fossil fuels."

Now their oasis is choking in oil, carried onto their land by floods very likely linked to the burning of that very same black muck.

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the New York Times and #1 international bestseller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. This article was first published in the Los Angeles Times.

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