The Otter Creek Valley, in southeastern Montana, glows green in early July, dotted with sage and bright patches of yellow clover and wild mustard after a spring of heavy rains. Ranchland rises gently toward rugged hills and buttes. Otter Creek twists a narrow channel through the middle, reflecting clouds. Otter Creek Road follows the creek. Few pickups pass between the unincorporated community of Otter to the south and the one-gas-station town of Ashland to the north.
A month before and about 6,000 miles away, in Beijing, a city of 20 million, where enveloping smog obscures the surrounding mountains, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer spoke of this Montana valley — or, rather, what’s beneath it. The governor of the state with the greatest coal reserves keynoted a coal conference sponsored by Peabody Energy, the largest private coal company in the world, with massive operations in northeast Wyoming, just south of Otter. Schweitzer and coal companies such as Peabody see economic opportunity in exporting coal to China and other energy-hungry Asian markets. More than a billion tons of coal beneath the Otter Creek Valley could be shipped and burned there.