Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) A day after a Yellowstone County judge halted construction of a 175-megawatt power generation plant near Laurel, the state’s largest utility provider and the owner of the project announced it was appealing the decision to the Montana Supreme Court, asking the high court to stay the order.

On Thursday, Judge Michael G. Moses said the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which issues permits for power plants, had erred by not more fully considering the impacts of the lighting and more importantly, that the plant would produce more than 750,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Moses ordered the DEQ to re-evaluate those impacts before proceeding, something that would stall the project, which has been slated for opening sometime in 2024.

In a press release, NorthWestern said that Moses’ ruling had required new criteria for issuing the permit. However, in a 35-page decision, Moses explained that the DEQ had only used an environmental analysis, a shorter, less complete report to evaluate the proposed station that would use 18 reciprocal internal combustion engines that burn natural gas to produce power.

Moses said because of the significant amount of greenhouse gases, the department should have been more thorough and used an environmental impact statement instead, as the Montana Environmental Protection Act requires.

NorthWestern is seeking an immediate stay on the decision while it appeals. The plant is already under construction.

“This ruling appears to require new criteria to be analyzed and jeopardizes reliable service for our Montana customers during critical times when customer energy demand is high, the coldest nights and hottest days, typically times when renewable resources are generating little or no energy,” said John Hines, who oversees compliance and stewardship for NorthWestern. “Our air permit was reviewed and approved by the DEQ using standards that have been in effect for many years. We began construction of this project with this in mind. We will work with DEQ to determine our path forward.”

NorthWestern pointed out in a press release that if the Laurel Generating Station would have been operational during an arctic cold front that swept through the state from Dec. 20 to 26, it would have avoided $4.7 million of power that was purchased on the open market, and charged to NorthWestern’s customers, which cover a swath of the state.

The ruling also comes at a critical time for Montana as the legislature has contemplated environmental and natural resources lawsuit. For example, a bill before the legislature would bar judges from considering the Montana Environmental Protection Action in ruling adversely against defendants in court. Sen. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, proposed Senate Bill 557, which passed that chamber and is now in the Montana House of Representatives. It would make it hard to sue under the MEPA, and Noland said that it prevents “frivolous lawsuits.”

The lawsuit over the Laurel Generating Station was brought by several groups, including Earthjustice and the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Groups that bring lawsuits against the government for natural resources and environmental issues are also under scrutiny this legislative session as Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, has sought to make any litigation by nonprofits that sue subject to state tax.

Senate Bill 524 would tax any litigation expense by a nonprofit that challenges under certain chapters in Montana law, including the environment, agriculture and natural resources.