Montana’s new law banning climate impact reviews sparks backlash from environmental experts
Written by ABC Audio ALL RIGHTS RESERVED on May 26, 2023
(HELENA, Mont.) — The federal government has made a push toward enacting policies addressing climate change in recent years, but state lawmakers in Montana are bucking the trend, recently passing a law curbing climate impact reviews in the state.
State Rep. Josh Kassmier last month introduced House Bill 971, an amendment to the Montana Environmental Policy Act that changes the process of how large projects are reviewed by preventing state regulators from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts when conducting environmental reviews.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the bill into law on May 10.
The move comes in a state is known for its outdoor recreation and vast landscapes, with diverse terrain ranging from the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains and several national and state parks, including a portion of Yellowstone, the first plot of land in the U.S. to be designated as federally protected.
“Montanans have a very strong connection to the land,” Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center, told ABC News. “You don’t live here unless you like being outdoors and recreating and enjoying the scenery.”
But, in a state filled with such natural resources, the extraction of coal, oil and other natural gases and the resulting financial boon is also popular, Robin Saha, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana, told ABC News.
Passage of the law was a “knee-jerk reaction” after the permit for the construction of a NorthWestern Energy methane gas plant outside of Laurel, Montana, was revoked by a district judge in Yellowstone County on April 6, Saha said.
Local residents had argued for years that the power plant was poorly located and posed threats to the public health and quality of life, according to the Billings Gazette.
Methane is one of the most powerful greenhouse gas emissions, measuring more 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of how much warming it can contribute to the atmosphere over time, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Methane emissions contribute to at least a quarter of today’s climate warming, the Environmental Defense Fund says.
“I think they saw the requirements to assess greenhouse gas emissions as sort of a roadblock and decided that, since it was slowing down the process for NorthWestern energy, they would just make sure that didn’t happen again,” Saha said of the lawmakers who voted for the bill.
Jenny Harbine, managing attorney for nonprofit Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office, described the law to ABC News as “cynical.”
She said, “Rather than taking that issue back to the state regulator, and just doing the work to look at the climate impacts, the legislature said, ‘Well, let’s not look at climate impacts at all.'”
Some environmental experts in Montana likened the new legislation to part of a long trend of climate denialism in the state, accusing state leaders of turning a blind eye to the impact on climate change to appease major industries.
“This is just an effort to bury Montanans heads in the sand,” Saha said.
Critics argue the bill also violates the 50-year-old Montana state constitution, which guarantees Montanans the right to a “clean and healthful environment.”
The state clause is the “strongest constitutional provision” in the U.S. for protecting the environment, Hedges said. It is also the strongest argument environmentalist have to challenge House Bill 971 in court, Michelle Bryan, a professor at the University of Montana’s natural resources and environmental law program, told ABC News.
The law will likely be challenged as a violation of the state constitution, Bryan said, adding that in the past when the state legislature has attempted to amend the Montana Environmental Protection Act and was challenged in court, the amendment failed.
But even if the law is upheld, it will be difficult to enforce because of the “clean and healthful environment” clause in the state constitution, Bryan said.
Critics say Montana is already experiencing the effects of climate change, pointing to a whiplash of severe weather events like constant flooding on the Yellowstone River, extreme heat, one of the largest snowpacks to fall in the last decade, decades-long drought and wildfires raging more than a month before the dry season officially begins. There have been several climate assessments done in the state on these weather events, Bryan said.
Last week, air quality alerts were issued in Montana due to the early season wildfires burning in Canada — a clear consequence of warming temperatures, critics argued.
“Montana is experiencing pretty, pretty severe, serious effects of climate change,” Saha said. “The people of Montana have an interest in good decisions being made that aren’t going to worsen climate change.”
The effects the bill has on the state’s $7.2 billion annual outdoor economy and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports will also be “severe and drastic,” Alsentzer said.
The state is currently being sued by 16 youth plaintiffs over its pro-fossil fuel policies. In the complaint brought by environmental group Our Children’s Trust, one plaintiff who engages in regular outdoor recreation said climate change was affecting ski conditions. Another plaintiff, who is Native American, said their ability to harvest berries has been impacted. Another plaintiff who works on a ranch said climate change was affecting agricultural operations. Trial will start for that case in June.
“You can’t have a rational environmental decision-making process without a consideration of climate impacts,” Harbine said. “‘See no evil’ is not an environmental policy. But that’s not what the legislature intends.”
Representatives for Kassmier and Gianforte did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment.
Proponents of the bill, including Kassmier, said the new law addresses the conflict between the legislative and judiciary branches in the state, ensuring that lawmakers, not judges, set policy on critical issues like the permitting for the NorthWestern energy plant, according to the Montana Free Press.
Kaitlin Price, a spokesperson for Gianforte, told the Montana Free Press that the bill ensures that regulation of greenhouse gas emissions remains under federal regulatory frameworks.
“House Bill 971 re-established the longstanding, bipartisan policy that analysis conducted pursuant to the Montana Environmental Policy Act does not include analysis of greenhouse gas emissions,” Price said. “The bill would allow evaluation of GHGs if it is required under federal law or if Congress amends the Clean Air Act to include carbon dioxide as a regulated pollutant.”
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