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Quiet quitting. RTO. Coffee badging. What this new vocabulary says about your workplace

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Quiet quitting. RTO. Coffee badging. What this new vocabulary says about your workplace

Abygail Liera sympathized when she first read about people who were “quiet quitting,” refusing to go above and beyond at their jobs.

But it wasn’t until a few months later that she understood.

The Winnetka resident got a new boss and was expected to train him, but when she asked for a raise, she said she was told, “We’ll see.” Her boss discouraged open and honest feedback, making her work environment feel toxic and disrespectful.

“I remember reading it, and I’m like, ‘Damn, this sucks that people have to go through this,’” Liera, 32, said of the news article on quiet quitting. “At the same time, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what that feels like.’ But now I do.”

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Since the pandemic, work-related phrases such as “quiet quitting” and “Great Resignation” have taken over the internet — and are now part of our everyday vocabulary. Social media are filled with work-related memes and videos that describe “rage applying” or “lazy girl jobs.” People share tips on Reddit about how to effectively — and surreptitiously — “polywork,” or hold multiple jobs at the same time.

This proliferation of workplace lingo is more than a fad: It’s a viral language showing how workers are trying to hold on to the power they suddenly gained during the pandemic, workplace experts say.

After March 2020, workers were able to leverage the tight labor market to get what they want. But recent layoffs across a number of industries have shown that the balance of power between employee and employer today is, at best, a constantly tilting seesaw.

The job cuts and mandatory return-to-office policies imply that companies are gaining the upper hand on their employees, yet the persistence of hybrid work policies may show that workers have made a permanent mark on how work gets done in the future.

Employment data suggest that a growing number of people are prioritizing work-life balance in a more meaningful way or, increasingly cynical about traditional work arrangements, are tailoring those structures to work for them.

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“As cynicism grows with the status-quo aspects of work, it feels like this push and pull between management and workers,” said Eric Anicich, associate professor of management and organization at USC’s Marshall School of Business.

“This idea of disliking your boss and hating your job is as old as time,” Anicich said. “Now we have a certain language for it, and there’s a certain way of tapping into a community of people who feel the same way that we haven’t had in the past.”

Pandemic epiphanies, burnout and coining a new term

Los Angeles buildings with signs on them reading "We Quit" and "Out of Office"

(Andrew Rae / For The Times)

For 10 years, Alisha Miranda juggled two careers — a 9-to-5 job in creative and digital agencies and, in her spare time, freelance journalism.

But by June 2021, she’d had enough.

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Working from home during the pandemic blurred the lines between work and her personal life, exacerbating a years-long feeling of burnout. Miranda had toiled for years at her day job without receiving a promotion or a pay raise, despite indications from her managers that one was coming. She even continued working while grieving the deaths of loved ones from COVID-19. The final straw came when a large ad campaign she’d been working on was suddenly pushed back indefinitely.

“I can’t picture doing this for one more day,” Miranda, 38, remembers telling herself. “I have got to go.”

Miranda joined the historic wave of millions of U.S. workers who left their jobs in 2021 and 2022 because of high levels of burnout or “pandemic epiphanies,” in which about two-thirds of employees took a step back and reconsidered the role of work in their lives.

Add to that the increased prevalence of remote work, which finally allowed workers to have some measure of control over their schedule, and it’s no wonder there was a wave of resignations, said Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the UCL School of Management in London, who coined the term “Great Resignation.”

Klotz has spent his career studying how and why people quit their jobs. In an interview with a reporter in 2021, Klotz said he expected to see a wave of resignations after the initial shock of the pandemic. He had previously discussed his theory with his wife, describing it to her as the “Great Resignation” and just so happened to use the term in his chat with the reporter. It caught fire.

“There was this pressure that the economy was going to reopen, and everybody was going to get back to life as it was,” he said. “It gave people something to grab on to and feel like, ‘I’m not alone.’ We need a pause about what we learned here, we can’t just go back to the way things were.”

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As Liera, the Winnetka resident, was grappling with her difficult work situation, her younger sister Daisy was independently having her own pandemic epiphany.

Daisy Liera

Daisy Liera quit her job during the Great Resignation and has a new outlook on work-life balance since the pandemic.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The Burbank resident knew she needed a reset after working for months in a pressure-cooker workplace run by a boss who seemed to have “no care about health safety measures” during the pandemic. She started getting stomachaches, couldn’t sleep at night and would count down the minutes until her lunch break or until she could leave for the day.

She quit her job, found a new one at a legal assistance organization and eventually went to graduate school to focus on organizational psychology. As the daughter of immigrants, Liera said her parents’ ethic of hard work and working multiple jobs to support the family made her feel that she had to make the most of all of the opportunities her parents gave her and “use it to show that we were able to do it.”

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“Prior to the pandemic, I was very like, ‘I need to get a job, I need to stay with a job, and I need to be good at my job all the time,’ which is one thing that led to my anxiety,” said Liera, 28, who now works for the city of Los Angeles. “After the pandemic and after leaving my job and going back to grad school, I de-prioritized work.”

Usually, the company is the one with power over workers because bosses can fire them at any moment. But the word “resignation” shifts that power to workers, giving them control over their own job, Klotz said. That applies, too, to other viral work phrases, such as “bare minimum Mondays.”

After Miranda, the journalist, quit her job, she went to work for a startup wine magazine. Her new colleagues were nice and “super supportive,” and the improved work-life balance meant she could focus more on freelance writing. (The magazine ran out of funding in 2022.)

Now freelancing full time, Miranda says she’s more intentional about the work she takes.

“I only want to pursue projects that are rewarding and things that I’ll be happy with, money aside,” she said.

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Doing only what’s required of you, and no more

Illustration of a woman working on her computer in an office while lying in a bed

(Andrew Rae / For The Times)

After her boss started cracking down, Abygail Liera cut back on her productivity and started typing emails at a snail’s pace or revising them six or seven times, and dialing phone numbers with extra care.

Abygail Liera began "quiet quitting" after clashing with a new boss.

Abygail Liera began “quiet quitting” after clashing with a new boss.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“My work ethic is going to reflect on your leadership,” she recalled thinking.

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Eventually Liera’s “quiet quitting” turned into actual quitting. She left her job in December and is now looking for a new gig.

Although the job market has been discouraging, hearing from former co-workers about the problems at her old office confirms to her that she made the right choice.

The term “quiet quitting” is difficult to define, said Yongseok Shin, an economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Although some interpret it as a way to increase work-life balance, others define it as a way to recoup unpaid or unappreciated hours of service.

Intrigued by the viral term, Shin and his colleagues conducted research on whether the number of hours employees worked contributed to the tight labor market.

In his research on the phenomenon, Shin and colleagues found that from 2019 to 2023, workers voluntarily reduced the number of hours they worked. In that time, the average employed person worked about 31 fewer hours per year. This came after employees had spent the previous six years working an average of 17 extra hours per year.

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The reduction was greater among educated men in their prime, who worked an average of 44.3 fewer hours per year over the same time period. Women reduced their working hours by an average of 14.6 hours per year, on average, a consequence of gender disparities in caregiving responsibilities.

In essence, these workers were reducing the intensity of their work and reassessing their relationship to their jobs, whether it was cutting back on weekend hours or potentially decreasing their work in response to a lack of appreciation at the office, Shin said.

“These people can afford to do this because they’re valued employees,” he said. “But if your bosses work fewer hours, that’s good for everybody, right? If your boss is less of a workaholic, other people in the organization will feel more comfortable working fewer hours.”

But don’t mistake this for a nationwide shift in work-life balance. Shin said the U.S. has a long way to go before catching up with countries in Europe, which champion more generous benefits such as paid family leave, sick leave and vacation.

The battle over remote work continues

Illustration of a woman wearing a blazer and pajamas getting coffee from an office coffee maker.

(Andrew Rae / For The Times)

After Bryan Wilson was laid off from his job in higher education, he pivoted full time to audio production — a choice that allowed him to work from home for the first time.

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The flexibility was game-changing. He and his wife were able to split child-rearing responsibilities for their two kids while also spending more time together, planning meals and eating healthfully. Remote work also allowed Wilson, 39, to apply for more jobs outside the limits of his Auburn, Ala., home, where audio jobs are few and far between.

“There is relatively no market for audio production outside of major cities,” Wilson said. “I want to do this work because I’m really good at this work, and this is work I love, but where do I find it? During the pandemic … it was really easy to find that work.”

No pandemic-era office battle has been as fierce as that between the work-from-home and return-to-office camps. And 2024 doesn’t look like the end of it.

Last year, a group of economists published a paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research tracking millions of online job listings and whether they permitted remote or hybrid work.

Before the pandemic, the share of U.S. job postings that said new employees could work remotely one or more day per week was less than 4% in 2019. Over the next three years, that share would triple, according to the latest available data on the researchers’ website, WFH Map.

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Although census data show the number of employed people working remotely began to fall in 2021, a “new normal” of remote and hybrid work has emerged, said Peter John Lambert, an economist at the London School of Economics and co-creator of WFH Map.

Based on job postings and survey data, Lambert said he sees no evidence that hybrid work will soften in the coming year.

“Both employers and workers seem to find this partial flexibility to be the best of both worlds, providing flexibility to workers but allowing for in-person teamwork during on-site days,” Lambert said. “While workers learned this quickly, it has taken business a bit longer to realize the huge benefits to offering workers flexibility.”

Right in the middle of this is the term “coffee badging,” which was popularized by videoconferencing
company Owl Labs and describes a way for employees to meet their in-office mandate but spend as little time as possible in the workplace.

According to the company’s report, 58% of hybrid workers say they are already “coffee badging,” with an additional 8% saying they’re interested in trying it out.

For Wilson, as interest rates shot up and layoffs roiled media companies, those remote audio production opportunities dried up. Wilson currently works two part-time jobs in audio, which is not enough to keep him out of debt. He’s now looking for local, in-person jobs while he finishes certifications in tech and cybersecurity, a field he picked, in part, because of its prevalence of remote work opportunities.

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He’s curious whether the ubiquity of remote work will return when the economy improves and companies again face pitched battles to attract new employees.

“That, I think, will be the real test of whether remote work can be normalized,” Wilson said. “When the money is flowing again … will they be offered remote jobs? I’m definitely going to keep my eye on that.”

When one job of $150,000 is not enough

Illustration of a person wearing the equipment needed for many jobs including an apron, tool belt and gadgets.

(Andrew Rae / For The Times)

Since the pandemic began, wealth advisor Fernando Reyes has been hearing from clients that they were taking on second or even third jobs.

It’s not a novel concept — people have always worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. What’s new is that Reyes’ clients were highly paid aerospace workers, tech employees and mortgage brokers, people who earn annual salaries ranging from $150,000 to $400,000. Although their salaries seem high by any measure, these clients said they needed to take on additional work to help pay mortgages or send their kids to college.

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Working an additional 20 to 30 hours a week can provide an extra $50,000 to $60,000 of household income, Reyes said. Today, he’s seeing higher rates of polyworking than ever before in his 20-year career.

“What used to be a comfortable income now is not so comfortable anymore,” said Reyes, who works for EP Wealth Advisors and is based in Torrance. “You’re seeing more educated people doing this, more tech workers, more people with college degrees, master’s degrees, doctorates even.”

According to U.S. Census Bureau economists, rates of multiple jobholders have increased over the last two decades.

A 2020 analysis found that, on average, 7.2% of workers held more than one job between 1996 and 2018. In that time period, the rate of multiple jobholders increased by 1 percentage point, to 7.8% of all employed people at the beginning of 2018.

The trend was influenced by economic fluctuations: People were less likely to hold multiple jobs during a recession.

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The rise of remote work since the pandemic has also changed the calculus for many workers — if they don’t have to commute to an office, adding another, typically contract, job is much easier. Oftentimes, the employers don’t know their shared employee is moonlighting.

Sometimes, the impetus for a second job is the state of the economy. One mortgage loan worker Reyes knows went from earning more than $1 million a year to making $40,000 last year as home sales and refinancing cratered amid the hike in interest rates.

“People have to live,” Reyes said. “Everybody wants to buy a home, everybody wants to buy a car, everybody wants to go to school, everybody wants to take a vacation. How do you pay for it all?”

For the majority of multiple jobholders, their side gigs made up about 25% of their total income, according to the Census Bureau analysis of Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics data. For lower earners, the share was closer to 30%. Surprisingly, high-earning polyworkers — those making at least $113,200 in 2018 — brought in a fourth of their earnings from second jobs.

Financial advisor Lazetta Rainey Braxton encourages her clients, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, to polywork and diversify their income streams. She noted the racial and gender pay disparities that plague many workers, such as Black women earning about 62 cents to the dollar compared with white men.

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“We’re starting at a deficit, right? If we commit to just one institution, and know we’re already behind 38 cents, we’ve got to do polywork to make up the 38 cents,” said Braxton, founder and chief executive of Lazetta & Associates. “And if we don’t, the wealth gap is going to continue.”

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The first big-rig hydrogen fuel station in the U.S. opens in California

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The first big-rig hydrogen fuel station in the U.S. opens in California

The first commercial hydrogen fuel station for big-rig trucks in the U.S. is up and running at the Port of Oakland, a baby step toward what hydrogen proponents see as a clean new future for long-haul trucking.

The small station, now serving 30 hydrogen fuel-cell trucks, could mark the start of a nationwide network for fuel-cell truck refueling. It could also flop.

Aggressive and impactful reporting on climate change, the environment, health and science.

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The challenges are immense. Hydrogen fuel is expensive — as much as four times more expensive than gasoline or diesel fuel. The fuel cells, which drive electric motors to drive the truck, are enormously expensive as well.

Making hydrogen itself is now a dirty, greenhouse-gas-generating process, although green hydrogen production is an emerging option, and even more expensive. Hydrogen proponents are banking on the idea that scaling up production will bring prices down

New diesel truck sales will be outlawed in California by 2036. Only zero-tailpipe-emission new trucks will be allowed. Already, zero-emission requirements are in place for trucks that enter ocean ports. And only two technologies are available to achieve that goal: battery electric trucks and hydrogen fuel-cell trucks. “We believe a good portion of those will be hydrogen vehicles,” said Matt Miyasato, chief of public policy for hydrogen fuel distributor FirstElement Fuel.

FirstElement, through its True Zero brand fueling stations, is the largest hydrogen vehicle fuel distributor in the U.S. Miyasato spoke Tuesday at a ceremony to mark the station’s opening, attended by state officials including Liane Randolph, chair of the California Air Resources Board; and Tyson Eckerle, clean transportation advisor for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s business development office, Go-Biz. Primary funding for the Oakland station is provided by state money channeled through the Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission.

A pump at a fueling station.

A hydrogen pump at FirstElement’s True Zero hydrogen fueling station at the Port of Oakland.

(Russ Mitchell / Los Angeles Times)

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Hydrogen fuel holds great promise for cleaner air. It is not a fossil fuel. A fuel cell is a kind of battery that takes in hydrogen and emits only water vapor.

However, producing hydrogen itself can be very dirty. Most hydrogen produced today requires methane, which is a fossil fuel and a strong greenhouse gas contributor. The industry is working on production alternatives, including carbon capture and storage from the burning of methane, or quitting methane altogether to make green hydrogen, using an electrolyzer to split water’s hydrogen and oxygen. Both alternatives are prohibitively expensive without government subsidies.

The federal government is handing out $8 billion to jump-start what it calls the “hydrogen economy” by creating so-called hydrogen hubs. One of them will be set in California, which is expected to take in $1.2 billion for the project.

Eckerle said the hub funding will allow construction of 60 more hydrogen truck stations in California, enough to serve 5,000 trucks and 1,000 buses.

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The vehicles themselves are expensive too. Both battery electric and hydrogen fuel-cell trucks can cost three times as much or more than a $120,000 diesel truck. Those buying the trucks can qualify for state and federal subsidies to make up most of the upfront costs.

Battery electric is gaining a strong foothold in the medium-sized delivery truck market, but hydrogen could have a leg up for long-haul trucking. While a fuel cell is comparable in size to a diesel engine, a battery big enough for long-haul trucks adds weight and size and cuts down on the total freight load the truck can deliver. And while an battery electric truck can take hours to recharge, the refill time for hydrogen is more comparable to filling up with diesel fuel.

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Why Disney is doubling down on theme parks with a $60-billion plan

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Why Disney is doubling down on theme parks with a $60-billion plan

Over the decades since Walt Disney opened his first theme park in 1955, the company’s tourism business has ballooned to an enterprise worth tens of billions in yearly sales, with sprawling locations in Anaheim, Orlando, Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Today, the Burbank entertainment giant is doubling down once again. Disney plans to invest $60 billion over 10 years into its so-called experiences division, which includes the theme parks, resorts and cruise line, as well as merchandise.

In Anaheim, the city council recently approved an expansion plan at Disneyland Resort, which could lead to at least $1.9 billion of development and involve new attractions alongside hotel, retail and restaurant space.

Why the massive investment? At a time when Disney faces revenue challenges due to cord cutting, streaming wars and a slower film box office, its theme parks are a bright — and reliable — spot for its business. Moreover, they play a major part in the company’s strategy — using well-loved movies to inspire rides and vice versa (think “Pirates of the Caribbean”), feeding an ongoing virtuous cycle.

“When you consider other elements of Disney’s business, those theme parks, they’ve shown themselves to be proven winners,” said Carissa Baker, assistant professor of theme park and attraction management at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “There’s no doubt that they have stayed very competitive in the film space and the TV space, but they’ve always led the theme park sector.”

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During the most recent fiscal year, the company’s experiences division — which is heavily anchored by the parks — brought in about 70% of Disney’s operating income, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. By contrast, Disney’s sports sector, including ESPN, contributed 19% of operating income. The entertainment division, consisting of the company’s TV channels, streaming services and movie studios, brought up the rear at 11%.

Those numbers represent a stark contrast from even 10 years ago, when the company was heavily reliant on its TV networks, which brought in 56% of Disney’s operating income (that segment included ESPN at the time). The parks and resorts division drew just 20%.

The tide began to turn in 2019, as the global theme park industry saw record-breaking attendance, just in time for the pandemic to hit the next year.

With the parks closed, Disney reported an operating loss of $81 million in 2020. Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, in particular, were shut for 15 months, due to tight restrictions in the Golden State. Since then, pent-up demand from visitors has propelled theme park revenue in a way that hasn’t been replicated in movie theaters.

“The industry was really growing quickly before COVID-19, and that obviously put a crimp on everything,” said Martin Lewison, associate professor of business management at Farmingdale State College in New York. “But it appears as long as the economy remains healthy, the industry is back on track for that growth.”

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Theme parks are typically one of the fastest parts of the travel and hospitality industry to recover after economic downturns, said Dennis Speigel, founder and chief executive of consulting firm International Theme Park Services. Part of that is because it’s hard to duplicate the theme park experience at home.

“Disney sets the bar for our entire global theme park industry,” Speigel said. “The guests, the visitors, they love the way Disney immerses you in their storytelling.”

The Disneyland Resort expansion plan, known as DisneylandForward, will help the 490-acre park stay fresh for visitors. The plan calls for changes to the park’s zoning, allowing the company more freedom to mix attractions, theme parks, shopping, dining and parking. While the plan doesn’t specify exactly which attractions will be added to the resort, company officials have floated ideas including immersive Frozen, Tron and Avatar experiences.

Over the years, Disneyland has cycled out many rides and exhibits to make way for new ones — for example, of the original 33 attractions that debuted with the park, only about a dozen still exist (One that didn’t make it? The Monsanto Hall of Chemistry).

Though Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure have recently seen additions such as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Avengers Campus and the renovated Pixar Place Hotel, giving guests new reasons to come back again and again are the key to increased growth. This summer, the Magic Kingdom will open Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, replacing the controversial “Song of the South”-inspired Splash Mountain attraction.

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“In the theme parks business, you tend to make more money the more you invest,” said Lewison of Farmingdale State College. “People love riding Haunted Mansion 50 times, but the truth is that even that gets old. So new rides, new lands, new parks — these things draw in attendance, they create pricing power and they add capacity.”

And Disney’s rivals in the theme parks business show no signs of slowing down, meaning Disney can’t just rely on its existing hits. Universal Studios Hollywood recently added Super Nintendo World to its park, SeaWorld is touting new attractions and shows for its 60th anniversary this year, and even immersive art installation company Meow Wolf is expanding throughout the U.S.

The competition is becoming so fierce that Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger faced a pointed question during last month’s shareholder meeting about Walt Disney World’s readiness to vie with a new Universal park set to open in Orlando in 2025. He pushed back on the query, saying the idea that Disney World didn’t prepare enough attractions to compete for guests that year “just couldn’t be further from the truth.”

“We’ve been aware of Universal’s plans for a new park for more than a decade,” he said. “We have a sophisticated approach to analyzing the needs of all of our businesses and strategically deploying capital.”

The importance of the parks to Disney’s bottom line is also showing up in the entertainment giant’s search for Iger’s successor. (Iger is expected to retire in 2026.) Josh D’Amaro, the chair of Disney Experiences, which includes the parks, is considered one of four front-runners for the job. Notably, it was Bob Chapek, formerly of the parks division, who initially succeeded Iger, though he was later ousted from the role.

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Red state coal towns still power the West Coast. We can't just let them die

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Red state coal towns still power the West Coast. We can't just let them die

In the early morning light, it’s easy to mistake the towering gray mounds for an odd-looking mountain range — pale and dull and devoid of life, some pine trees and shrublands in the foreground with lazy blue skies extending up beyond the peaks.

But the mounds aren’t mountains.

They’re enormous piles of dirt, torn from the ground by crane-like machines called draglines to open paths to the rich coal seams beneath. And even though we’re in rural southeastern Montana, more than 800 miles from the Pacific Ocean, West Coast cities are largely to blame for the destruction of this landscape.

Workers at the Rosebud mine load coal onto a conveyor belt, which carries the planet-wrecking fuel to a power plant in the small town next door. Plant operators in Colstrip burn the coal to produce electricity, much of which is shipped by power line to homes and businesses in the Portland and Seattle areas. It’s been that way for decades.

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“The West Coast markets are what created this,” Anne Hedges says, as we watch a dragline move dirt.

An aerial view of the coal mine outside Colstrip that feeds the town’s power plant.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

She sounds frustrated, and with good reason.

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Hedges and her fellow Montana environmentalists were happy when Oregon and Washington passed laws requiring 100% clean energy in the next two decades. But they’re furious that electric utilities in those states are planning to stick with coal for as long as the laws allow, and in some cases making deals to give away their Colstrip shares to co-owners who seem determined to keep the plant running long into the future.

“Coal is not dead yet,” Hedges says. “It’s still alive and well.”

That’s an uncomfortable reality for West Coasters critical of red-state environmental policies but not in the habit of urging their politicians to work across state lines to change them — especially when doing so might involve compromise with Republicans.

One example: California lawmakers have refused to pass bills that would make it easier to share clean electricity across the West, passing up the chance to spur renewable energy development in windy red states such as Montana and Wyoming — and to show them it’s possible to create construction jobs and tax revenues with renewable energy, not just fossil fuels.

Instead, California has prioritized in-state wind and solar farms, bowing to the will of labor unions that want those jobs.

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It’s hard to blame Golden State politicians, and voters, for taking the easy path.

But global warming is a global problem — and whether we like it or not, the electric grid is a giant, interconnected machine. Coal plants in conservative states help fuel the ever-deadlier heat waves, fires and storms battering California and other progressive bastions. The electrons generated by those plants flow into a network of wires that keep the lights on across the American West.

Also important: Montana and other sparsely populated conservative states control two U.S. Senate seats each, and at least three electoral votes apiece in presidential elections. Additional federal support for clean energy rests partly in their hands.

Those are the practical considerations. Then there are the ethical ones.

For years, the West’s biggest cities exported their emissions, building distant coal generators to fuel their explosive growth. Los Angeles looked to Delta, Utah. Phoenix turned to the Navajo Nation. Albuquerque turned to the Four Corners region.

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That wave of coal plants — some still standing, some demolished — created well-paying jobs, lots of tax payments and a thriving way of life for rural towns and Native American tribes. All are now struggling to map out a future without fossil fuels.

Mule deer roam through the town of Colstrip, not far from the power plant.

Mule deer roam through the town of Colstrip, not far from the power plant.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

What do big cities owe those towns and tribes for producing our power and living with our air and water pollution? Can we get climate change under control without putting them out of business? What’s their role in the clean energy transition?

If they refuse to join the transition, how should we respond?

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A team of Los Angeles Times journalists spent a week in Montana trying to answer those questions.

We explored the town of Colstrip, hearing from residents about how the coal plant and mine have made their prosperous lives possible. We talked with environmental activists who detailed the damage coal has caused, and with a fourth-generation rancher whose father fought in vain to stop the power plant from getting built — and wrote poems about his struggle.

Coal is going to die, sooner or later. For the sake of myself and other young people, I hope it’s sooner.

And for the sake of places like Colstrip, I hope it’s the beginning of a new chapter, not the end of the story.

An animated shape

Coal pays the bills. For now

For a community of 2,000 people, Colstrip doesn’t lack for nice things.

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The city is home to 32 public parks and a gorgeous community center, complete with child care, gym, spin classes, tanning booth and water slide. The spacious health clinic employs three nurses and two physical therapists, with a doctor coming to visit once a week. There’s an artificial lake filled with Yellowstone River water and circled by a three-mile walking and biking trail.

Everybody knows where the good fortune comes from.

The high school pays homage to the source of Colstrip’s wealth with the hashtag #MTCOAL emblazoned on the basketball court’s sparkling floor. A sign over the entrance to campus celebrates the town’s 2023 centennial: “100 Years of Colstrip. Powered by Coal, Strengthened by People.”

“We have nothing to hide,” Jim Atchison tells me. “We just hope that you give us a fair shake.”

Jim Atchison steps out of his office in Colstrip.

Jim Atchison steps out of his office in Colstrip.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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I couldn’t have asked for a better tour guide than Atchison, who for 22 years has lived in Colstrip and led the Southeast Montana Economic Development Corp. He’s soft-spoken and meticulous, with a detailed itinerary for our day and a less ironclad allegiance to coal than many of the locals we’ll meet.

They include Bill Neumiller, a former environmental engineer at the power plant. We start our day with him, watching the sun rise over the smokestacks across the lake. He moved to Colstrip 40 years ago, when the coal plant was being built. He enjoys fishing in the well-stocked lake and teaching kids about its history, in his role as president of the parks district.

The plant, he says, pays the vast majority of the city’s property taxes.

“It’s been a great place to raise a family,” he says.

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So many people have similar stories — the general manager of a local electrical contractor, the administrator of the health clinic. I especially enjoy chatting with Amber and Gary Ramsey, who have run a Subway sandwich shop here for 30 years.

“It takes us two to three hours to get through the grocery store, because you know everybody,” Gary says.

He didn’t plan to spend his life here. Sitting at a table at Subway, he tells us he grew up in South Dakota and went to college in North Dakota before taking a job teaching math and coaching wrestling in Colstrip. He planned to stay for a year or two.

Then he met Amber, who was working part time as a bartender and doing payroll at the coal plant.

“Forty years later, I’m still here,” he says. “We raised our kids here.”

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The power plant's smokestacks are visible from miles away in the town of Colstrip.

The power plant’s smokestacks are visible from miles away in the town of Colstrip.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

John Williams was one of the first Montana Power Co. employees to move to Colstrip, as planning for the plant’s construction got started. Today he’s the mayor. He’s well-versed in local history, from the first coal mining in the 1920s — which supplied railroads that later switched to diesel — to the economic revitalization when the Portland and Seattle areas came calling.

Unlike many of the other Colstrip lifers who share their stories, several of Williams’ kids have left town. But one of his sons lives in a part of Washington where some of the electricity comes from Colstrip. Same for another son who lives in Idaho.

It’s hard for Williams to imagine a viable future for his home without the power plant.

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“I believe they are intimately tied together,” he says.

And what about climate change, I ask?

Nearly everyone in Colstrip has a version of the same answer: Even if it’s real, it’s not nearly as bad as liberals claim. And without coal power, blackouts will reign. West Coast city dwellers don’t understand how badly they need us here in Montana.

Atchison is an exception.

Yes, he’s dubious about climate science. And yes, he wants to save the mine and power plant. His office is plastered with pro-coal messages — a sign that says, “Coal Pays the Bills,” a magnet reading, “Prove you’re against coal mining: Turn off your electricity.”

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But he knows the market for coal is shrinking as the nation’s most populous cities and most profitable companies increasingly demand climate-friendly energy. So he’s preparing for a future in which Colstrip has no choice but to start providing it.

“We have one horse in the barn now,” Atchison says. “We need to add two or three more horses to the barn.”

A conveyor belts carries coal from the Rosebud Mine to the Colstrip power plant.

A conveyor belts carries coal from the Rosebud Mine to the Colstrip power plant.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Ever since President Obama started trying to tighten regulations on coal power, Atchison has been developing and implementing an economic diversification strategy for Colstrip. It involves expanding broadband capacity, building a business innovation center and broadening the local energy economy beyond coal. The transmission lines connecting Colstrip with the Pacific Northwest are an especially valuable asset, capable of sending huge amounts of clean electricity to the Pacific coast.

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“Colstrip is evolving from a coal community into an energy community,” Atchison says. “We’re changing. We’re not closing.”

Already, Montana’s biggest wind farm is shipping electricity west via the Colstrip lines. A Houston company is planning another power line that would run from Colstrip to North Dakota. Federal researchers are studying whether Colstrip’s coal units could be replaced with advanced nuclear reactors, or with a gas-fired power plant capable of capturing and storing its climate pollution.

West Coast voters and politicians could speed up the evolution, for Colstrip and other coal towns. Instead of just congratulating themselves for getting out of coal, they could fund training programs and invest in clean energy projects in those towns.

They’ll never fully replace the ample jobs, salaries and tax revenues currently provided by coal. But nothing lasts forever. One hundred years is a pretty good run.

An animated line break

Some inconvenient truths

“Great God, how we’re doin’! We’re rolling in dough,
As they tear and they ravage The Earth.
And nobody knows…or nobody cares…
About things of intrinsic worth.”

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—Wally McRae, “Things of Intrinsic Worth” (1989)

Growing up outside Colstrip in the 1970s could lead to strange moments for Clint McRae, the son of a cowboy poet.

He was a teenager then, and Montana Power Co. was working to build public support for Units 3 and 4 of the coal plant. One day his eighth-grade teacher instructed everyone who supported the new coal-fired generators to stand on one side of the classroom. Everyone opposed should stand on the other side.

McRae was the only student opposed.

“And then [the teacher] gave a lecture about how important the construction of these plants was and handed out bumper stickers that said, ‘Support Colstrip Units 3 and 4,’” McRae tells me, shaking his head. “It was terribly uncomfortable.”

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Rancher Clint McRae was raised outside Colstrip and has followed in his father's footsteps.

Rancher Clint McRae was raised outside Colstrip and has followed in his father’s footsteps.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Later, his mom was doing laundry and found a pro-coal bumper sticker in his pants pocket. She showed it to his cattle rancher father, Wally, “and I guess he went over there [to the school] and kicked ass and took names,” McRae says with a laugh.

Fifty years later, he’s carrying on his dad’s legacy.

We spend a morning in the Colstrip area on McRae’s sprawling ranch, admiring sandstone rock formations and herds of black Angus cows. The scenery is harsh but elegant, rolling hills and pale green grasses and pink-streaked horizon lines.

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“This country has a sharp edge to it,” McRae says, quoting a photographer who visited the property years ago.

The land has been in his family since the 1880s, when his great-grandfather emigrated from Scotland. He hopes his youngest daughter — who recently moved back home with her husband — will be the fifth generation to raise cattle here.

“And we just had a grandchild seven months ago, and she’s the sixth,” he says.

Rancher Clint McRae contemplates the environmental threats facing his family's land.

Rancher Clint McRae contemplates the environmental threats facing his family’s land.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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McRae wears a cowboy hat and drives a pickup truck. He tells me right away that he’s “not the kind of person who participates in government programs unless I absolutely have to.” He’s certainly got no qualms about making a living selling beef.

But McRae and his forebears defy stereotypes.

His father, Wally, not only raised cows but was also a celebrated poet, appointed by President Clinton to the National Council on the Arts. In the 1970s, he joined with other ranchers to help found Northern Plains Resource Council, an advocacy group. They were moved to act by a utility industry plan for nearly two dozen coal plants between Colstrip and Gillette, Wyo.

“I and others like me will not allow our land to be destroyed merely because it is convenient for the coal company to tear it up,” Wally McRae said, as quoted in a 50th-anniversary book published by Northern Plains.

Now in his late 80s and retired from the ranch, Wally’s got every reason to be proud of his son.

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Clint has fought to limit pollution from the coal plant his dad couldn’t stop — and to ensure the cleanup of dangerous chemicals already emitted by the plant and mine. He’s written articles calling for stronger regulation of coal waste, and slamming laws that critics say would let coal companies pollute water with impunity. Like his father, he’s a member of Northern Plains.

McRae wants me to know that even though he and his dad “damn sure have a difference of opinion” with many of the people who live in town, “it was never personal.” The coal plant employees are friends of his. He doesn’t want them to lose their jobs.

“Our kids went to school together, played sports together,” he says.

Rancher Clint McRae opens a gate on his family's land outside Colstrip.

Rancher Clint McRae opens a gate on his family’s land outside Colstrip.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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But even though McRae believes “we can have it both ways” — coal generation coupled with environmental protection — he’s not optimistic. And history suggests he’s right to be skeptical. Various analyses have found rampant groundwater contamination from coal plants, including Colstrip. Air pollution is another deadly concern. A peer-reviewed study last year estimated that fine-particle emissions from coal plants killed 460,000 Americans between 1999 and 2020.

Then there’s the climate crisis.

McRae doesn’t want to talk about global warming — “that’s not my bag,” he says. But he’s seen firsthand what it can look like.

In August 2021, the Richard Spring fire tore across 171,000 acres, devastating much of his ranch and nearly torching both of his family’s houses. He was on the front lines of the fast-moving blaze as part of the local volunteer firefighting crew. Temperatures topped 100 degrees, adding to the strain of dry conditions and fierce winds. McRae had never seen anything like it.

Two and a half years later, he’s still building back up his cattle numbers and letting the grass regrow.

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“It burned all of our hay. It was awful,” he says.

McRae has a strong sense of history. As we drive toward the Tongue River, which forms a boundary of his ranch, he points out where members of the Arapaho, Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes camped before the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, a few years ahead of his great-grandfather’s arrival in Montana. A few minutes later he stops to show off a series of tipi rings — artifacts of Indigenous life that he’s promised local tribes he’ll protect.

McRae is acutely aware that this wasn’t always ranchland — and that it probably won’t be forever.

“It’s gonna change,” he says. “Whether we embrace it or not.”

An animated line break

The wind and the water

Sturgeon. Bubbles. Salamander. Jimmy Neutron.

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Those are “call signs” for some of the 13 employees at the Clearwater wind farm, where 131 turbines are spread across 94 square miles of Montana ranchland a few hours north of Colstrip. The nicknames are scrawled on a whiteboard in the trailer office.

Raptor. Goose. Sandman.

Clearly, they have fun here. And it’s an industry where you can make good money.

Turbines spin at sundown at NextEra Energy's Clearwater wind farm, which sends power from Montana to Oregon and Washington.

Turbines spin at sundown at NextEra Energy’s Clearwater wind farm, which sends power from Montana to Oregon and Washington.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Clearwater’s operator, Florida-based NextEra Energy, won’t disclose a salary range. But as of 2022, the median annual wage for a U.S. wind turbine technician working in electric power was $59,890, compared with $46,310 for all occupations nationally.

“If someone wants to stay close to home and still have a good career, we provide them that opportunity,” Alex Vineyard says.

Vineyard lives in nearby Miles City and manages Clearwater for NextEra, America’s largest renewable energy company. Clad in a hard hat, sweater vest and orange work gloves, he drives to a nearby turbine and walks up a staircase to show us the machinery inside. The tower is 374 feet high, meaning the tips of the blades reach 582 feet into the air.

Not far from here, hundreds of construction laborers are finishing the next two phases of the Clearwater project.

Alex Vineyard manages the Clearwater wind farm for NextEra, America's largest renewable energy company.

Alex Vineyard manages the Clearwater wind farm for NextEra, America’s largest renewable energy company.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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“You can see where we build wind sites. It’s not downtown L.A.,” Vineyard says, the sunset casting a brilliant orange glow behind him. “Generally it’s rural areas — and there are limited opportunities for kids in those areas. Not a lot of great careers.”

Wind will never replace coal. The construction jobs are temporary, the permanent jobs far fewer.

But they’re better than nothing. A lot better.

As much as West Coast megacities owe it to coal towns like Colstrip to bring them along for the clean energy ride, coal towns like Colstrip owe it to themselves to take what they can get — and not let stubbornness or politics condemn them to oblivion.

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Fortunately, they’ve got the power grid on their side.

In today’s highly regulated, thoroughly litigated world, long-distance power lines are incredibly hard to build. They can take years if not decades to secure all the necessary approvals — if they can get those approvals at all. As a result, wind and solar developers prize existing transmission lines, like those built to carry power from Colstrip and other coal plants to big cities.

The Clearwater wind farm offers a telling case study.

Two of Colstrip’s four coal units shut down in 2020 due to poor economics, opening up precious space on the plant’s power lines. That open space made it easier for NextEra to sign contracts to sell hundreds of megawatts of wind power to two of Colstrip’s co-owners, Portland General Electric and Puget Sound Energy — and thus get Clearwater built.

An electrical substation flanks the Colstrip power plant.

An electrical substation flanks the Colstrip power plant.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Montana wind is especially useful for Oregon and Washington because it blows strongest during winter, when those states need lots of energy to stay warm. On that front, Clearwater has been a huge success. During its first winter, it had a capacity factor of 60%, meaning it produced 60% of all the power it could possibly produce, if there were enough wind 24/7.

Sixty percent is a lot — “like a home run,” Puget Sound Energy executive Ron Roberts says.

He and his colleagues want more. Puget Sound plans to build more Montana wind turbines to serve its Washington customers — again taking advantage of the Colstrip power lines.

West Coast states need to keep investing in exactly this type of project if they hope to persuade their conservative neighbors to stop fighting to save coal. The more they can bring the benefits of wind and solar power to the rest of the West, the better.

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And what about those low-wind, cloudy days when wind turbines and solar panels aren’t enough to avoid blackouts?

Carl Borgquist has a plan for that.

I meet up with him near Gordon Butte — a flat-topped landmass that juts up 1,025 feet from the floor of Montana’s Musselshell River valley, four hours west of Colstrip but just over five miles from the coal plant’s power lines. There are already wind turbines atop the butte, built by the landowning Galt family with Borgquist’s help.

Borgquist assures me as we drive to the top that I’ll soon understand why this steep butte is perfect for energy storage.

“It will intuitively make sense, the elegance and simplicity of gravity as a storage medium,” he says.

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Carl Borgquist admires the views from atop Gordon Butte, where he's got plans for a pumped storage project.

Carl Borgquist admires the views from atop Gordon Butte, where he’s got plans for a pumped storage project to augment Montana wind power.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

There will be two reservoirs — one up on the butte, another 1,000 feet below. They’ll be filled with water from a nearby creek.

During times of day when there’s extra power on the Western electric grid — maybe temperatures are moderate in Portland and Seattle, but Montana winds are blowing strong — the Gordon Butte project will use that extra juice to pump water uphill, from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir. During times of day when the grid needs more power — maybe there’s a record heat wave, and not enough wind to go around — Gordon Butte will let water flow downhill, generating electricity.

It’s called pumped storage, and it’s not a new concept. But compared with other proposals across the parched West, this one is almost miraculously noncontroversial. No environmentalists making hay over water use. No nearby residents crying foul.

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Borgquist still needs to sign up a utility customer, or he would have already flipped Gordon Butte to a developer better suited to build the $1.5-billion project, which will employ 300 to 500 people during construction. But Borgquist is confident that before too long, one or two of the Pacific Northwest electric utilities preparing to ditch Colstrip will see the light.

“I’ve been waiting for the market to catch up to me,” he says.

Let’s hope it catches up soon. Because even though pumped storage won’t keep us heated and cooled and well-lit every hour of every day, neither will wind, or solar, or batteries, or anything else. No one technology will solve all our climate problems.

The sooner we learn that lesson, the sooner we can move on to the hard part.

The Colstrip power lines run near Gordon Butte.

The Colstrip power lines run near Gordon Butte, carrying coal-fired electricity — and increasingly wind energy — from Montana to Oregon and Washington.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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An animated line break

The art of the deal

I find myself wandering the halls of the state Capitol in Helena. Christmas is a few weeks away, and there’s a spectacular tree beneath the massive dome, flanked by murals of white settlers and Indigenous Americans.

On a whim, I step into Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office and ask if he’s in. Gianforte has fought to keep the Colstrip plant open, and I want to ask him about it. I’m also curious to meet a man who easily won election despite having assaulted a journalist.

One of his representatives takes down my contact info. I never get an interview.

Despite the state’s deep-red turn in recent years, Montanans have a history of environmental consciousness, owing to their love of fishing, hunting and the great outdoors (as seen in the film “A River Runs Through It”). They approved a new state constitution in 1972 that enshrined the right to a “clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

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To the frustration of Gianforte and his supporters, that right may include a stable climate.

This time last year, a Montana judge revoked the permit for a gas-fired power plant being built by the state’s largest electric utility, NorthWestern Energy, along the banks of the Yellowstone River. The judge ruled that the state agency charged with approving the gas plant had failed to consider how the facility’s heat-trapping carbon emissions would contribute to the climate crisis.

NorthWestern Energy says this gas-fired power plant on the Yellowstone River is needed to help keep the lights on.

NorthWestern Energy says this gas-fired power plant on the Yellowstone River is needed to help keep the lights on for homes and businesses.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Legislators responded by rushing to pass a law that barred state agencies from considering climate impacts.

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The Yellowstone River gas plant moved forward, but the law didn’t last long. A few months after it passed, another judge ruled in favor of 16 young people suing the state over global warming, agreeing that the legislation violated their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

“This is such a solvable problem,” says Hedges, the Montana environmentalist critical of coal mining. “It’s just that nobody wants to solve it.”

Hedges is a leader of the Montana Environmental Information Center, where she’s spent three decades battling for clean air, clean water and a healthy climate. It was her advocacy group, along with the Sierra Club, that sued Montana over the state’s approval of the Yellowstone River gas plant, setting off the chain of increasingly consequential court rulings.

But as mad as she is at Gianforte — and at the local utility company executives who insist they need coal to keep the lights on in Montana — Hedges is at her most caustic when discussing the Pacific Northwest environmentalists who, in her view, have failed to do everything they can to get the Colstrip power plant shut down.

That includes the Sierra Club, which, Hedges says, has shifted its focus too quickly from shutting down coal plants to blocking the construction of new gas plants — even in places such as Montana, where coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, isn’t dead yet.

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Hedges’ frustration also includes the Washington state lawmakers who passed a much-lauded bill, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, requiring electric utilities to stop buying coal power by 2025 — only to sit idly by as some of those utilities then made arrangements to give away their shares in the Colstrip plant to coal-friendly co-owners rather than negotiate agreements to shut the coal units.

“So they’re not actually decreasing carbon dioxide emissions even a little tiny bit. They are allowing this plant to continue, instead of using their vote to close this source of pollution. It’s maddening,” Hedges says.

1 A lone tumbleweed blows through piles of coal at the Rosebud Mine outside Colstrip, a few miles from the power plant.

2 Coal is prepped for transport at the mine.

3 Coal from the Rosebud mine is transferred to trucks at this site a few miles

1. A lone tumbleweed blows through piles of coal at the Rosebud Mine outside Colstrip, a few miles from the power plant. 2. Coal is prepped for transport at the mine. 3. Coal is transferred to a truck at the mine. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Washington officials say they tried to get Colstrip shut down but were stymied by the plant’s complicated six-company ownership structure, and by the Montana Legislature’s staunch support for coal. Sierra Club activists, meanwhile, say they’re still pushing for Colstrip’s closure, and for coal shutdowns across the country — even as they also oppose the construction of gas plants.

“From a climate perspective, gas is just as bad as coal,” says Laurie Williams, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

To avoid a future of ever-more-dangerous fires, floods and heat, we need to ditch both fossil fuels — fast.

This is the hard part. This is the part that will require compromise — for conservatives who believe anything smacking of climate change is “woke” liberal propaganda, and for liberals who want nothing to do with conservatives spouting that belief.

So how do we do it? How do we stop clashing and start cooperating?

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First off, West Coasters need to engage in good faith with the people who have supplied their power for decades — and strike deals that might persuade those red-staters to move on from coal. Deals like building more wind farms in Montana and not as many back home, even if that means fewer union jobs and lower tax revenues for California, Oregon and Washington.

It’s great that the coastal states are targeting 100% clean energy, but it’s not enough. They must bring the rest of the West along for the ride, or it won’t matter. Every solar farm in California is undermined by every ton of coal burned at Colstrip.

The lesson for folks who live in Colstrip and other Western coal towns might be even more difficult to swallow.

L.A. and Phoenix and Portland have funded your comfortable lifestyles a long time. Now they want something different.

If Colstrip wants to stick around, it needs to start offering something different.

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Climate activist Anne Hedges stands in a public park near the Colstrip power plant.

Climate activist Anne Hedges stands in a public park near the Colstrip power plant.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It’s easy to see why that’s a scary prospect. After we finish exploring the coal mine with Hedges, we drive into town and stop at one of the immaculately maintained public parks. The power plant’s two active smokestacks aren’t far, looming 692 feet over a swing set and red-and-blue bench with the letters “USA” carved into the backing.

“The climate doesn’t care who owns the power plant,” Hedges says, as steam and carbon and soot spew from the stacks.

The climate won’t care any more when Houston-based Talen Energy — which operates the plant, and which didn’t respond to requests for a tour or interview — becomes the facility’s largest owner next year, acquiring Puget Sound Energy’s shares.

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Our ability to solve this problem doesn’t depend on which company is profiting off all that coal.

What it does depend on is our willingness to make hard choices, ranchers and miners and activists setting aside their differences and writing the West’s next chapter together, rather than fighting so long and so hard that the tale ends badly for everyone.

Change is scary. But it’s inevitable. Cowboy poet Wally McRae learned that the hard way.

Maybe 50 years from now, his great-grandchildren will wax poetic about the beauty of Colstrip without coal.

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The early-morning sky glows red over the town of Colstrip.

The early-morning sky glows red over the town of Colstrip.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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