Eva Molina and Eric Heiman 

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that climate change is already affecting the health, safety, and livelihoods of Montanans. Warm winters lead to thin snowpacks and a more dangerous fire season. Wildfires cost people their homes and incessant smoke leads to lung damage or worsens asthma. Montana’s outdoor economy, third largest in the nation, takes a toll when the snowpack is 30-60% thinner than usual.

Furthermore, psychologically, nearly 10% of Americans have reported feeling hopeless or depressed due to climate change. The time for action is now, yet the Montana Public Service Commission is illegally delaying a rulemaking petition that would allow real climate action to take hold in Montana. The petition heeds the PSC to protect our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by taking climate costs into consideration in all decisions.

The PSC is an elected body obligated to represent the interests of Montanans in regulating utilities, in particular, NorthWestern Energy.  This body has approved a new gas plant as well as the acquisition of Colstrip Units 3 and 4, all while allowing Northwestern energy to increase our rates by 28%. These decisions are questionable. Why is the PSC approving continued investment in a dying and polluting industry? Why would a commission that pledges to advocate for affordable services allow a historic rate hike rather than encourage investment in cheaper energy sources like wind and solar?

For these reasons among others, on February 28, 2024 over 40 business and organizations submitted a rulemaking petition to the PSC demanding that the commission consider the dangers of climate change in their decision-making process. The basis for this petition is the Held v. Montana case, which ruled that the state’s failure to consider climate change in its policy decisions violated the plaintiffs constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

Specifically, the decision invalidated two Montana laws that limited the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews and prohibited the denial of permits based on climate impacts. The decision in this case is monumental for young people growing up in the state of Montana as it forms a basis for pro-environmental policy, such as this petition.

Unfortunately, the PSC is stalling their decision to accept or deny the petition. Rather than seizing the opportunity to be proactive in moving Montana in the direction of clean, renewable energy, the PSC is choosing not to prioritize the future of Montana’s youth. State law dictates that the commission had 60 days from the submission of a rulemaking petition to make a decision on the request.

This deadline was on April 28th, and on April 30th, the commission voted to extend the deadline for public comment to July 1st. Hundreds of individuals made public comment in favor of this petition before the deadline for a decision. Subsequently, this appears to be a stall tactic prior to the legislative session beginning on January 2nd as government agencies are prohibited from engaging in rulemaking within three months of a session.

This delay could push rulemaking from the PSC significantly down the road, but the time for climate action is now. As a result, a subset of petitioners filed a writ of mandamus on June 10 urging the court to order the PSC to fulfill their duties. Yesterday, the court issued an order to the PSC to respond to the petition within 20 days and we will await their response.

The economic, health, and environmental effects of the current course have been ignored for long enough. Even NorthWestern Energy’s own 2023 SEC filing recognizes that climate change will cost Montana businesses in manifold ways. Yet, the company plans on continued gas investment regardless of long-term impact.

This disregard is bewildering–not just for our air and waterways but for economics itself. Adoption of this rule is an opportunity for the state and NorthWestern Energy to choose science and logic and honor the constitutional rights of all Montanans.

Eva Molina and Eric Heiman are organizers with the local youth climate group Gallatin Valley Sunrise. This piece has been written on behalf of the larger group.