Climate Connections: Voices are needed to protect our climate at the legislature
Anne Hedges and Katy Spence
Protecting the climate and clean water will be an uphill battle in the second half of the Montana legislative session. The Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization advocating for clean air, clean water, a livable climate, and sustainable communities in Montana.
MEIC has lobbied in legislative sessions since our founding in 1973, and we can say without a doubt that the last several sessions have been difficult, but crucial in the struggle for a healthy climate. Defeating legislation that will curb climate progress - and passing good legislation - requires engagement at all levels, from local governments to everyday Montanans concerned about the climate crisis, public safety, and affordable energy.
One of the worst bills this session is SB 228, which would prevent local governments from regulating any use of petroleum fuels (i.e., oil, diesel, and methane gas). Imagine your local government being unable to use zoning to prevent NorthWestern Energy from placing a methane gas-fired power plant in your town or a large methane gas pipeline through your neighborhood.
The bill even prohibits local governments from limiting the use of gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles, which absurdly would prevent limitations on travel regardless of public safety – think cars on pedestrian paths, one-way roads, “no parking” areas, parks, and more. In addition, local governments would not be able to limit the location of a gas station or refinery, even near a hospital or school.
Two other bills would also limit local government’s ability to address their constituents' concerns about the climate crisis and public health. SB 208 prevents local governments from limiting the installation of gas infrastructure inside new homes. Methane gas is a potent greenhouse gas that can cause significant health impacts when burned inside the home.
But that’s not all. HB 241 would prohibit local governments from requiring that newly constructed homes and businesses are designed to allow easy installation and use of rooftop solar and EV charging in the garage. Simple design standards could save homeowners thousands when retrofitting, but the legislature is more focused on punishing new homeowners and local governments who want to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.
A number of bills attack clean energy in order to benefit fossil fuels. HB 220 is an attempt by NorthWestern to overturn new Public Service Commission (PSC) rules that protect consumers by requiring utilities to plan for and acquire new power plants through a transparent process, leading to more affordable energy for Montanans.
This bill would create a committee to rewrite those rules and recommend a new regulatory scheme to the next legislature. It’s clear that the committee would be designed to serve the interests of NorthWestern, not electricity customers. While NorthWestern’s primary interest is to make money for its shareholders, the PSC’s current rules protect customers by ensuring that the lights stay on and electric rates are affordable.
The coal industry is also flexing its political muscle this session with several bills that would favor coal mining companies over clean water and the climate. HB 576 would weaken permitting requirements and water quality protections that limit how much pollution can enter prairie streams.
It would allow mines to discharge pollution that exceeds water quality standards and would apply retroactively; mines that were once found to be illegally polluting the water would now be given a free pass.
The legislature is at it again with bills to complicate and disincentivize the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). HB 60 and HB 55 would tax EVs in a way that would make them pay more than their fair share for the upkeep of Montana’s roads – at least for the next several years, at which time the rules would change again.
Complicated amendments were added to both bills that will cause confusion and overtaxing of EV drivers and those who want to install EV charging stations. Montana needs a straightforward regulatory framework that accounts for the differences between EVs and gas-powered vehicles, ensures EV drivers pay their fair share for road upkeep, incentives the installation of more public charging stations, and results in clear rules that don't punish Montana EV drivers.
Our Constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment may also be under threat. Many of our environmental protections from the last 50 years, as well as our future, hinge upon this right. Join the Rally to Defend Montana’s Constitution in Helena on March 15 to stand up for our Constitution.
Finally, take heart. With the work of organizations and people around the state, many bad climate bills were defeated in the first half. Communities rallied to defeat punitive wind tax bills (SB 97 and HB 454), a utility bill to hamstring net metering (HB 643), a bill to give NorthWestern Energy control of the transmission system and the ability to block renewable energy development (SB 353), to name a few.
A handful of good bills are still alive that could help Missoula and other cities reach climate goals, particularly by incentivizing infill and sustainable development. SB 382 would create a Land Use Planning Act, which establishes a robust planning and public participation process to identify where and how communities want to grow. Other positive climate and land use bills are HB 246 (allow tiny dwelling units), SB 343 (allow duplex, triplex, fourplex in residential areas), and HB 435 (revise water rights for exempt wells).
There will be a lot to follow in the second half of the session. Your voice makes a difference! To help you engage on what you care about, follow MEIC’s online Action Center and Bill Tracker for the latest on these bills and more.
Anne Hedges is the Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs and Katy Spence is the Communications & Engagement Director at the Montana Environmental Information Center.
Climate Smart Missoula brings this Climate Connections column to you the second and fourth Friday of every month. Learn more about our work and sign up for our e-newsletter at missoulaclimate.org.