The Growing Coal Train Movement


Directed by Andy Miller and Robin Moore (2014)

Film Review

Momenta is about the growing grassroots movement to stop the coal trains that are creating environmental havoc in the Pacific Northwest. The movement owes its diversity to the devastation the trains create in nearly all the communities they pass through.

Hurt by the rapid shutdown of coal-fired power plants (for environmental and economic reasons), the US coal industry is seeking to cut their losses by selling as much coal as possible to China. Coal exported to China via Pacific deep water ports comes from Montana’s Powder River Basin. The coal trains carrying it it follow a circuitous route through Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. They endanger the health and livelihoods of hundreds of communities along the way. Including Montana ranchers facing catastrophic water shortages as the mining companies deplete the Powder River Basin aquifer.

The number of coal trains varies between 18 and 120 a day depending on the community. The trains are uncovered and each sheds 31 tons of coal dust daily. The coal dust contains high levels of mercury and arsenic. This is in addition to the heavy metals contained in diesel particulates given off by the train engines produced by train engines. The latter substantially increases residents’ risk of asthma, heart attack and stroke.

In urban areas, such as Billings, Spokane, Portland, Longview, Seattle and Bellingham, the trains always travel through the poorest neighborhoods. In more sparsely populated areas, they contaminate pristine waterways essential to recreational fishing, water sports and tourism.

The documentary also emphasizes the need to reduce global reliance on coal to reduce overall carbon emissions. The coal industry is indifferent to these so-called “externalities.”

They refuse to cover their trains to reduce the spread of coal dust and are only willing to pay 5% of the $500 million infrastructure necessary to accommodate the increased train traffic. According to one activist, “all they care about is squeezing the last bit of profit out of a dying industry.”

The documentary concludes with a discussion – and a tour of a Marysville solar panel factory – of the beneficial effects of the renewable energy industry on the US economy. The latter creates far more jobs than exporting coal to China and is less dependent on fluctuations in the Chinese economy.

For more information on the anti-coal train movement go to

Are Women Better at Getting Out of Poverty?

Solar Mamas: Why Poverty? (2012)

Directed by Mona Eldaief and Nehane Nonjaim

Film Review

Solar Mamas is about the Barefoot College in Rajastan India and the struggles of a Jordanian woman to overcome the sexist attitudes of her husband and other men in her Bedouin village.

The Barefoot College is a non-governmental organization which has training rural women from the developing world to become solar engineers since 1997. The program serves the dual purpose of electrifying poor rural villages and helping these villages out of poverty. After completing a six month training program, the women return to their home countries to train other women in solar installation.

The documentary concerns the first two women selected by the Jordanian Minister of the Environment to attend the Barefoot College. The women come from a village of 300 where all the adults are “unemployed” and the women do all the work (collecting firewood, doing laundry, cooking, cleaning and looking after children). Women with young children receive welfare benefits, which is why the Jordanian government is keen to subsidize their attendance at the Barefoot College.

As the Jordanian women speak no English, their training is based on hands-on assembly experience, aided by a book of color-coded circuit diagrams. Both women are illiterate, as it’s considered shame for Bedouin girls to remain in school past age ten.

Are Women Better at Getting Out of Poverty?

The film focuses on the younger of the two women, who’s forced to discontinue her training after her husband threatens to divorce her and take her children away. Rafea’s mother is caring for her four children during her absence. The husband threatens to take them to another village to be raised by his first wife (he has two).

Rafea returns, tearfully. A month later, despite her mother’s opposition and continuing threats from her husband, she overcomes her fear of her husband and returns to India to complete her solar training.

Towards the end of the film, the Minister of the Environment explains why the Jordanian government only selects women for solar training: they can’t count on men (who often have other wives) to remain in their home village.

If Rafea’s village is anything to go by, I suspect the real reason is that the women develop a stronger worth ethic in looking after their children. The men, in contrast, are bone idle and lay around on mattresses all day.

Below is a presentation by Bunker Roy, founder of the Barefoot College, about its history:

The Renewable Energy Revolution

The Future of Energy: Lateral Power to the People

By Maximilian Dearman and Missy Lahren (2015)

Film Review

This film takes its title from Jeremy Rifkin’s 2011 book The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World. The students who crowdfunded this documentary are clearly influenced by Rifkin’s relative blindness to the realities of class society. That being said, the film presents much valuable information about key players in the renewable energy revolution.

The video sets out to prove Rifkin’s thesis that “revolution” inevitably occurs when there are major simultaneous breakthroughs in energy production and communication. According to Rifkin, the first industrial revolution occurred in 1820, with the simultaneous development of coal-based steam power and letter-press printing; the second in 1900 with the simultaneous development of the combustion engine and electronic communication (telephone, radio and TV). He asserts the third industrial revolution has already started, owing to the simultaneous rise of renewable energy and the Internet. He’s convinced that the combined efforts of the business community and the nonprofit sector have already put the US on track to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050 – regardless of government inactivity on climate change.

The filmmakers are clear converts to Rifkin’s views on market-based solar energy conversion. They argue the above trajectory is inevitable now that solar energy has become cheaper than fossil fuels. They erroneously attribute the price drop for solar photo voltaic cells (PVCs) to an “economy of scale” effect (ie high demand for an item allows you to mass produce it and the price drops). They also argue the cost of renewable energy will continue to fall, while fossil fuel costs will increase as finite resources diminish.

A more realistic analysis would attribute the current low cost of PVCs to low production costs – in Chinese sweatshops using super cheap electricity from coal-fired power plants. These costs will increase exponentially as Chinese wages continue to improve and as China’s government reduces their reliance on dirty coal.

On the other hand, the film is chock full of useful information about US cities that have already switched to 100% renewable energy, as well as numerous groups and programs that have helped make this possible:

Grid Alternatives – a national nonprofit organization that installs free solar panels in low income communities, while simultaneously low income volunteers to become solar technicians.
Community Choice Aggregation – a system adopted into law in the states of Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Illinois which allows cities and counties to aggregate the buying power of individual customers within a defined jurisdiction in order to secure alternative energy supply contracts on a community-wide basis. Energy will always be cheaper, more efficient and more planet-friendly when it stays in the communities where it’s produced and is controlled by those communities.
• Green for All – a national organization founded to ensure that low income communities and communities of color have access to renewable energy technology and jobs.
B-Corporations – a framework and certification for corporations wishing to benefit their communities, as well as their shareholders.
Mosaic – a conduit for small renewable energy entrepreneurs to obtain financing when banks refuse to loan them money.
• Power Shift, Cool the Earth, Alliance for Climate Education – national groups working to get rood information about renewable energy alternatives into schools.
• Longevity – a 20 year solar lease program for families who can’t afford to pay $7,000 upfront for their solar energy panels.