By Nick Engelfried, Explorebigsky.com Environmental Columnist

The Australia-based Ambre Energy wants to mine Montana coal and ship it to China. At least, if Ambre can overcome local resistance from the communities that would be most affected by increased coal train traffic and proposed coal export terminals.

The mining company is looking to increase its presence in the U.S., and recently acquired partial ownership of the Decker Coal Mine in southeastern Montana. Ambre also holds a majority stake in a proposed coal export terminal in Longview, Wash.

The Longview terminal, first proposed in November of last year, was supposed to send U.S. coal to China and other international markets. With U.S. coal demand declining, coal companies see access to Asian markets as a way to keep their industry alive. But the coal export business comes with hefty environmental costs.

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Dry areas like eastern Montana are particularly sensitive to the environmental impacts of coal mining. Due to the fact that vegetation grows slowly in arid regions, it takes more time for plant life to re-establish itself after mining. Because coal deposits tend to act as natural aquifers, mining in eastern Montana affects the availability of water supplies. Heavy metals released during the process of coal mining contaminate aquifers, in some cases making the water unusable for agriculture.

Exporting coal would also contribute to climate change. China is already the world’s largest carbon emitter, mainly because of its reliance on using coal for power. Montana-to-China export proposals would connect the world’s largest energy market to some of the biggest coal reserves on the planet, making extreme climate change almost impossible to avoid.

While environmental groups and many rural landowners oppose coal export proposals, Governor Brian Schweitzer supports the idea of sending coal to China. In June, Schweitzer visited China to give the keynote address at a conference focused on expanding the global coal trade. And last year, the Montana State Land Board, which includes the governor and four other statewide officials, voted 3-2 to lease state lands in the Otter Creek area to developer Arch Coal.

Arch, which is based in St Louis, Mo., owns a 38 percent stake in the Longview export terminal that Ambre is spearheading. The port is one of several proposed coal export terminals on the West Coast, all of which have run into local opposition. The Longview proposal encountered trouble in February, after leaked documents showed the company had supplied deceiving information about how much coal it meant to transport.

While Ambre told local regulators it wanted to export only five million tons of coal out of Longview each year, company officials made plans to ramp up to five times that amount as soon as possible. In March, Ambre pulled its original permit application; it’s expected to submit a new application for a larger coal port.

Another proposed coal terminal, near Bellingham, Wash., has also drawn local opposition. In rail line communities like Bellingham, residents worry that dust from coal trains and diesel fumes from locomotives will impact the quality of their air. In June, 130 physicians from the Bellingham area came out with a statement formally opposing coal exports.

Additional coal export proposals on the West Coast have yet to enter the first stages of the permitting process, leaving uncertainty as to whether they will be viable. There is one existing terminal in Vancouver, B.C., but it’s already operating at capacity.

Thus Ambre’s acquisition of a Montana mine represents a gamble. The company is assuming it can navigate local opposition, and somehow get its coal to the West Coast—and from there to China.

Along the way, Ambre will face opposition from environmentalists concerned about climate change, rural landowners worried about retaining their access to water, and communities affected by dust and other air pollutants from coal trains. Ambre may be staking its future on Montana coal, but its future is far from clear.