Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) On the heels of the recent climate trial, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is taking a fresh look at its policies, and Missoula County is asking the agency to consider the impacts of greenhouse gases in its analysis.

The county this week signed a letter to the state agency, urging it to include a “thorough and robust analysis” of the impacts of climate-warming gasses as DEQ considers modernizing the Montana Environmental Policy Act.

DEQ has opened the project to public comment.

“They opened this comment period because the Montana Environmental Policy Act is getting old,” said Caroline Bean, the county's climate action manager. “They're also looking for opportunities to modernize it.”

MEPA was created by the Legislature in 1971 in part to require “thoughtful, informed, and deliberate consideration of the consequences and impacts of state actions” on the environment, wildlife habitat and ecosystems.

While the document has stood the test of time, climate science has evolved over the last 50 years and there's a growing push to include climate projections and other thresholds in the state's environmental assessment.

That push was punctuated earlier this year in the landmark Held v. Montana case, where a group of youth sued the state on grounds that it was violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

In doing so, the plaintiffs alleged that Montana's energy policy strongly favors the fossil fuel industry at the expense of the climate. They argued that it has impacts on a range of issues, from environmental damage to loss of jobs, recreation and mental health.

“While that's still in active litigation and under appeal, DEQ is starting a listening session on what Montanans want to see in MEPA,” said Bean. “We're encouraging them to include the impact of greenhouse gas emissions in their MEPA analysis.”

The emerging impacts of a changing climate are becoming more evident every year in western Montana. The wildfire season is growing longer, the summers are hotter, and the risk of flooding has grown more acute.

Missoula County also contends that smoke-filled summers are taking a toll on human health. The days when particulate matter is high enough to prompt warnings from the health department are growing in frequency.

“We would like to urge the state of Montana to include a thorough and robust analysis of
greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts in their evaluation,” the county wrote in its letter to DEQ. “Increased greenhouse gas emissions will have large economic impacts on our state, and without understanding a project’s climate impacts, we cannot make a well-reasoned decision on whether or not the project should proceed.”

According to DEQ, the comment period will remain open through Dec. 1, 2023.