Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) The Montana Public Service Commission will hold a public hearing at 9 a.m., April 8 on a petition to adopt a rule to require consideration of climate change impacts on health and the environment in its decisions.

“To have a composite of robust public commentary on record in one setting is a great opportunity,” said Commissioner Annie Bukacek.

Commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday to approve a staff recommendation to hold the hearing on the petition from more than 40 Montana businesses and organizations. Petitioners include Big Sky Resort, Helena Interfaith Climate Advocates, Parks’ Fly Shop, Ten Mile Creek Brewery and more.

Supporters of the hearing — and the new rule — argue the rule will help protect Montanans from continuing to pay skyrocketing power bills, shield against a future without snow and dead trout populations from warm rivers, and support the state’s outdoor recreation industry.

The Public Service Commission regulates monopoly utilities in the state including NorthWestern Energy.

In 2021, visitors who came to Montana for outdoor recreation spent roughly $2 billion here and supported nearly 70,000 jobs, according to a report petitioners referenced at an earlier meeting  to announce the initiative. The Montana Wildlife Federation cited the report by Power Consulting Incorporated.

In an historic decision last summer in Held v. Montana, a district court judge found a Montana Environmental Policy Act prohibition on the state from considering greenhouse gas emissions is unconstitutional.

The Montana Legislature had exempted the Public Service Commission from the act, but petitioners argue the Public Service Commission also has a constitutional obligation to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment for present and future generations.” Petitioners include a plaintiff in the Held case, which is pending with the state Supreme Court.

At the meeting Tuesday, Tim Holmes, a Helena artist, said more than 209 individuals with the Northern Plains Resource Council supported the hearing on the petition. He referenced the Held decision in his comments.

“The climate crisis impacts all of Montanans, but it’s especially harmful to those who rely on our land and natural resources for their livelihood, like Montana’s farmers and ranchers, and everybody’s kids like mine,” Holmes said.

Gary Matson, with Friends of Two Rivers in the Bonner Milltown community, said applying the social cost of carbon will “help lead the way to a future with reliable electricity that is truly affordable.”

The petition calls for a rule that would require the Public Service Commission to consider several factors in making decisions about whether costs and actions related to electric and gas utilities are in the public interest.

If approved, it would require, “at a minimum,” that commissioners apply a baseline social cost of greenhouse gases, outlined in the petition and cited in the draft order; and consider adverse climate impacts on communities that are disproportionately impacted by emissions “and/or subject to historical inequities.”

The petition, filed by Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center, also asks the Public Service Commission to make the following declaration:

“The Montana Constitution imposes an affirmative obligation on the Commission to consider the harmful climate consequences of its decisions to prevent constitutional harm and protect Montanans’ fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment.”

August Schuerr said massive changes have taken place in the Big Sky in recent years: “I’ve lived here in Montana all my life and never before have I seen the level of climate destruction that I have in the past few years.”

Schuerr said the Public Service Commission is the last line of defense against companies such as NorthWestern Energy and its 28% rate increase “when everyone is struggling to make ends meet.”

“It is the duty of all, especially the PSC, to step in and protect this place we call home,” Schuerr said.

NorthWestern Energy is building a controversial gas-fired plant in Laurel and will ask the Public Service Commission for customers to pick up the tab, estimated to be at least $310 million in legal and construction costs, in the future. A lawsuit over the plant’s significant greenhouse gas emissions is pending with the Montana Supreme Court.

At the meeting Tuesday, Nick Fitzmaurice, on behalf of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the broad spectrum of interested parties and diversity of petitioners supported the hearing.

MEIC is a plaintiff in the case against NorthWestern and the Department of Environmental Quality as well as one of the petitioners to the Public Service Commission.

“There’s a lot of interested folks that would like to share with the commission their thoughts on this matter,” Fitzmaurice said.

Commissioner Jennifer Fielder, however, said she wanted to confirm the Public Service Commission could set parameters on public comment rather than allow a hearing to go “days and days.”

Lucas Hamilton, chief legal counsel for the agency, confirmed commissioners can set “reasonable parameters on length of public comment.” He agreed the hearing will elicit high interest from the public if history served as an indication.

“This will be a well-attended hearing for the commission,” Hamilton said.