Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Labor leaders testified Monday against a petition the Montana Public Service Commission adopt a rule requiring consideration of climate change effects on health and the environment.

Amanda Frickle, with the Montana AFL-CIO, said she wanted to be clear she was not testifying to dispute the science of climate change. However, Frickle said unions are not represented among petitioners, and workers in Montana are being left out of the discussion.

She said the rule would result in “massive job loss” across the state.

“Unions operate under the premise that no one wins unless we all win, and we believe this rule leaves people behind,” Frickle said.

Monday, the Montana Public Service Commission heard nearly four hours of testimony about a petition that regulators adopt a rule to require them to consider climate change effects in their decisions about utilities and related costs.

The rule would require commissioners to consider the social costs of greenhouse gases and to consider adverse impacts to communities disproportionately impacted by emissions and subject to historical inequalities.

Proponents of the rule said the commissioners, which regulate monopoly utilities in Montana, have the most consequential role of any decision-making body in the state when it comes to climate.

They said taking climate change into consideration will be good for businesses and power customers, healthier for current and future generations including vulnerable populations such as babies and seniors, better for wildlife habitat, and true to the Montana Constitution.

However, opponents said the Public Service Commission should not have been holding a hearing on the topic in the first place because environmental regulation is beyond the scope of its authority.

They also argued the rule represents a regressive tax that will affect those least able to pay, and that calculating the social costs of climate change is an uncertain proposition based on politics as much as actual data.

Those calling for the change at the PSC are comprised of 40 businesses and organizations in Montana. Lawyer Barbara Chilcott said they all are concerned about drought, diminishing snowpack, severe flooding, and the severity of wildfires.

“The climate crisis impacts all Montanans, and it is especially harmful to those who are most vulnerable and those who rely on the lands for their livelihoods and traditions,” Chilcott said.

She and others pointed to the historic youth climate trial, Held vs. State of Montana, from last summer. Chilcott was one of the youth plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case, in which a district court judge found a Montana Environmental Policy Act prohibition on the state from considering greenhouse gas emissions to be unconstitutional.

Chilcott said witnesses in that trial showed Montana’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions from its fossil fuel economy are on par with other countries such as the Netherlands, Pakistan and Argentina.

But opponents pointed to the case as well and said it is on appeal to the Montana Supreme Court, which has yet to issue an opinion.

George Harris, executive director of the Montana Coal Council, said the legislature creates laws, and neither the courts nor the Public Service Commission do.

“The PSC has its own regulatory responsibilities,” Harris said. “But regulating climate change and the environment is not one of them.”

He also said his organization believes the rule would be redundant given the coal industry already is heavily regulated.

Opponents also include NorthWestern Energy, Montana-Dakota Utilities, union leaders representing ironworkers and building and construction trades, the national Cato Institute, and the Montana and Billings Chambers of commerce. It includes the CO2 Coalition, which touts benefits of carbon dioxide and whose former CEO worked for the American Petroleum Institute.


Gayle Joslin, with Helena Hunters and Anglers, pointed to Montana’s mountain goats as affected if action isn’t taken to address climate change.

She said the iconic goats won’t be able to get enough food if the cliffs where they live become too treacherous from rainfall freezing over snow, and their forage becomes icebound and unavailable.

“Mountain goat experts across North America are sounding the climate change alarm for this one and only animal of its kind in the world,” Joslin said. “And Montana is one of the few states in North America where native mountain goats exist.”

People won’t be able to ski as often in Montana either, a trend that’s already taking place, said Hiram Towle, of Bridger Bowl out of Bozeman. He said Teton Pass opened for only four days this season, and Blacktail Mountain had its latest opening ever.

“Bridger started the season on the lowest snowpack in their history,” Towle said.

Proponents also include Big Sky Resort, a couple of breweries, a food cooperative, university groups, conservation groups including the Montana Environmental Information Center and Sierra Club, and health care groups such as the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

David Hemion, with Helena Interfaith Climate Advocates, said people from different spiritual traditions support the rule because they support a common belief that practicing “loving care of God’s creation” is a sacred covenant, and one backed by Montanans and their constitution.

“This covenant with God to tend and keep God’s creations is affirmed by delegates to Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention,” Hemion said.

Chilcott, with Western Environmental Law Center, said it is economically feasible for Montana to replace 80% of its existing fossil fuel energy by 2030 and 100% by no later than 2050. She estimated the conversion would save $6.3 billion annually.

Lawyer Jenny Harbine, with EarthJustice and also representing petitioners, said the legislature gave the Public Service Commission full power to supervise public utilities and to act in the public interest.

In fact, she said commissioners are obligated to protect ratepayers from environmental and economic harm.

“Considering the climate impacts of fossil fuel resources advances the public interest by disclosing the actual costs of utility coal and gas resources,” Harbine said. “And to be clear, these are real and quantifiable costs, which, if ignored, will result in substantial and unnecessary harm to Montana ratepayers and the environment.”

Mayor John Williams, leading Colstrip for 25 years, said he opposed the rule because it would increase bills for residents. He said safe and affordable water and sewer services are one of the issues he contends with for the city that’s home to the state’s coal-fired plant.

“One of the largest ongoing costs that we have … is electricity,” Williams said. “It impacts all of our residents within the community.”

Also of Colstrip, state Rep. Gary Parry said the Public Service Commission shouldn’t have taken up the matter at all. The Republican described the proposed rule change as a “backdoor maneuver” to get around a legislative exemption of the PSC from the Montana Environmental Policy Act.

The rule would mean an onerous and “regressive tax” that would harm people who are already struggling to pay “for the real cost of energy to avoid freezing to death,” he said.

“Playing political games with the safety and livelihoods of Montanans is inexcusable,” Parry said. “Let’s work to find additional sources of reliable generation rather than attack the affordability (for) our people.”

A Helena physician, however, said 9 million deaths are projected globally related to climate by the end of the century, and Montana is heating faster than the national and global average.

Anita Lowe Taylor pointed to exposure to wildfire smoke and extreme heat and cold as causing harm, including to older people, those who are pregnant and children. She said already, twice as many people die from heat in the U.S. now than when she was born.

“Our children and grandchildren will look back on these decisions and hold us accountable,” said Lowe Taylor. “I hope that when they do so, we will find them thriving and in good health.”

Commissioner Jennifer Fielder, who led the meeting, said if the Public Service Commission decides to proceed with a rule, it will issue additional notices and elicit additional public comment in the future.