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The Green Life: Momenta: More than a Film

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February 13, 2014

Momenta: More than a Film

Train cars filled with coalSet in the pristine wilderness and charming communities of the Pacific Northwest, Momenta shows us the potentially catastrophic future for some of America's most treasured real estate. But it also provides hope and shows that a green and sustainable future is not only possible these communities, but that it's already happening. 

Momenta tells the story of the Powder River Basin, an area that straddles the Montana and Wyoming border and is home to one of the biggest coal deposits in the world. Currently, 18 trains, all a mile-and-a-half long, haul coal from these deposits to seaports in Oregon and Washington each day, snaking through National Parks and clogging major arteries in communities throughout the region. These trains pose major environmental and health risks to the cities they pass through, with each train spilling up to 31 tons of coal and coal dust during their journey. And things could get much worse for these communities.

As the U.S. weans itself off coal-fired power plants, demand for coal in Asia continues to rise. Major coal companies are proposing to build new deepwater ports on the Pacific coast in order to reach these Asian markets, significantly increasing production in the Powder River Basin.

Andy Miller, one of Momenta's co-directors, described the pressure that U.S. coal companies face to get their product to market. "The U.S. coal market is flattening, and if they can't find international markets to ship to, it'll close." 

The construction of these seaports will dramatically effect the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, more than doubling train traffic and significantly altering the environment. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Washington, one of the major seaports up for construction, would ravage pristine Washington coastline, as well as be rife for shipping disaster due to the tight turns and congested navigation required.

Chris Steinkamp, one of the producers of the film and the executive director of Protect Our Winters, believes that gravity of the situation is equal to that of some of the most discussed environmental issues in the country. "It seems like a regional issue, but our goal is to expand it and get more people involved," said Steinkamp. "It's on par with Keystone XL, but doesn't have that awareness."

Founded in 2007 by professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones, Protect Our Winters is committed to uniting the winter sports community against projects like Keystone XL and the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Because of climate change and declining snowpack levels throughout the world, winter sports are incredibly vulnerable to continued fossil fuel use. "We're one of the first communities to get hit hard," said Steinkamp. 

Despite laying out this disastrous scenario for the future, Momenta excels at showing the real and practical alternatives to coal that sustainable technologies such as wind and solar offer us. Interviews with Gary Shaver, the president of a Washington-based solar panel manufacturer, are particularly insightful as they illustrate how great an impact local and sustainable technologies can have on a community.

However, the film does not underestimate the scale of the challenges facing our antiquated energy grids. Speaking about the film's title, Momenta, Andy Miller said, "It's the plural of momentum, and it speaks to the size of the mental shift we need. The film is about more than just coal mining."

After a few successful screenings of the film in January, Momenta's producers are planning a grassroots campaign throughout the small towns that face disruption and environmental catastrophe due to the myriad of coal trains that pass through each day. They hope to stage screenings and Q&A sessions in towns such as Spokane, Washington  or Missoula, Montana, all with the goal of raising awareness for the project.

"We'll show it at house parties, local bars, we just want eyes on it," said Miller. 

--Image by iStockphoto/kurmis

--video courtesy of Momenta Project

Callum Beals is an editorial intern at Sierra. He recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz where he studied history and literature. He enjoys hiking, camping, and waking up at ungodly hours to watch soccer games.


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