Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — The Montana House has given initial approval to a bill introduced late this session that seeks to revise the state’s rules for environmental reviews, in response to a court decision that stopped work on a proposed natural gas-fired power plant near Laurel.

In a preliminary vote Friday, House members voted 71-29 in favor of House Bill 971, sponsored by Rep. Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton. Three Democrats joined all Republicans in support.

The bill would prevent the state from considering greenhouse gas emissions or their potential impacts on climate change when doing an environmental review on a proposed project.

“House Bill 971 makes it clear that, until the federal government by the act of Congress mandates that carbon is a regulated pollutant, or unless and until Montana policymakers enact laws to regulate carbon, a procedural review does not include climate analysis,” Kassmier said.

The vote comes just two weeks after a judge in Yellowstone County put a halt on NorthWestern Energy’s construction of the 175-megawatt Laurel Generating Station. On April 6, District Court Judge Michael Moses ruled the Montana Department of Environmental Quality had failed to take the required “hard look” at greenhouse gas emissions and lighting impacts when granting an air quality permit for the project. He vacated the permit and ordered DEQ to do additional analysis.

HB 971 was introduced on April 14. That’s after the regular deadline for new bills, so it required a two-thirds vote to move forward. Republicans hold a two-thirds supermajority in the House, and they voted on party lines to allow the bill to be introduced.

HB 971 had its first hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee on April 17, and it was limited to just over an hour of testimony, as it was held during a break in a lengthy House floor session. Later that evening, the committee returned and voted to advance the bill to the full House.

On Friday, the House voted unanimously to amend the bill, removing a section that would have put in much broader exemptions to environmental review if the Montana Supreme Court invalidated the provision banning consideration of climate impacts.

Despite the amendments, opponents said they still objected to the bill’s quick timeline and abbreviated hearing.

“I'm still going to be voting against this, because I can't support this pattern of doing the people's business without due process and participation – and actually, that's kind of the point of the law,” said Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula.

But supporters defended the process.

“Yes, it was brought at the last minute, but so was the decision that brought it to us,” said Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby.

“We did not do anything outside of the process – we used our rules to suspend the rules,” said House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell.

The House also endorsed another bill that supporters said was partially in response to Moses’ ruling. Senate Bill 557, sponsored by Sen. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, would also say challenges over greenhouse gases can’t generally be used to void or delay a permit.

In addition, it would add more hurdles for anyone seeking to challenge an environmental review – including requiring that they had made official comments to the agency before their final decision and requiring them to show a likelihood of their legal action succeeding before they can get an injunction to delay a project.

“It doesn't say that individuals can't bring an injunction, it doesn't say that individuals can't testify – they all can,” said Rep. Gary Parry, R-Colstrip. “It's trying to protect the companies as well – and anybody who's trying to do a project – from people coming in and not having any skin in the game.”

The House voted 64-35 in favor of SB 557.

One member who voted no was Rep. Lee Deming, R-Laurel. He said he was conflicted about the bill because many of his constituents live close to the proposed power plant and have expressed concerns about the impact, but he recognizes a need for energy projects like it.

HB 971 and SB 557 are both scheduled for final votes in the House on Monday.