State Sen. Dave Wanzenried estimates that about half of his legislative colleagues still have a tough time stomaching the idea that humans cause climate change. That makes the veteran Missoula legislator's conservation-minded stance unpopular at times in Helena.
"I've taken a lot of heat," says Wanzenried. "I've taken a lot of criticism."
Wanzenried can expect even more trouble after the release of a new report—and his pledge to address its findings during the next legislative session.
Environment America, a national conservation group, announced last week that Montana has had a 36 percent jump in carbon dioxide emissions between 1990 and 2007. Montana produced nearly 38 million metric tons of CO2 in 2007, compared to 28 million in 1990. The state's increase dwarfs the average 19-percent rise across the nation and, since 2004, only Oklahoma's emissions grew faster than Montana's. Using U.S. Department of Energy data, the nonprofit environmental watchdog points to coal-fired electricity production as the primary culprit, claiming it's responsible for about half of all carbon dioxide emissions statewide.
"We need to have a discussion about this," says Wanzenried.
State officials don't disagree with the report's sentiment, but they're suspicious of the numbers. Based on a greenhouse gas inventory compiled in 2007 on record with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), emissions jumped just 14 percent between 1990 and 2005. That's a pretty big discrepancy from the Environment America report, according to DEQ Director Richard Opper.
"Their fundamental point that we're headed in the wrong direction," says Opper. "I agree with that. But their numbers are inflated."
Environment America stands by its study. According to Zoee Turrill, who works with the group's local branch based in Missoula, Environment Montana, the bottom line is an alarming statewide trend.
"We are pumping out pollution at a higher rate than ever before, and that isn't a record we want to set," she says.
Wanzenried says state lawmakers have eked out a handful of measures over the years aimed at improving environmental stewardship, but that it hasn't been nearly enough. He sponsored a bill last session that requires new state buildings to be energy efficient, and in 2005 the Legislature announced that utility purveyors must provide 15 percent renewable energy by 2015. "Right now, if we do anything, it's rather milk toast, " he admits.
Environment America says the problem stems from legislators stuck between protecting one of the country's most lucrative industries and the integrity of the natural environment. In Montana, coal mining contributes more than $72 million annually in payroll to the local economy, with taxes and royalties going into Montana state coffers amounting to tens of millions of dollars. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has also touted the potential of tapping the 119 billion tons of coal buried in Montana—or 25 percent of the country's reserves—with new "clean coal" technology.
Conservation groups say that's not a viable solution.
"Cleaner coal is still filthy," says Anne Hedges, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. "Coal is our past. We need to plan for our future, because the existing system doesn't work."
Environment America's report is just the latest study underlying the need for a new energy paradigm. A growing coalition of conservation groups, led by the Sierra Club, has mobilized to ask Schweitzer to pressure regional utility providers to clean up their acts.
"Utilities like NorthWestern Energy need to see the writing on the wall and look at phasing out coal-fired power," says the Sierra Club's Brad Hash.
In particular, conservation groups point out Montana is well situated to transition from coal power to wind power. According to a Harvard University study released last summer, Montana places second nationally in wind-power potential.
NorthWestern Energy, the state's largest electric utility, says it's diversifying its energy portfolio, channeling greater amounts of wind and hydroelectric power than ever before. Company spokesperson Claudia Rapkoch adds the company is meeting Montana's legislative mandate.
"We believe we're taking a very serious and responsible approach," she says.
Rapkoch believes balance is the most prudent way to tackle the energy puzzle, and that multiple energy sources ensure a safe power supply. She cautions that steering too far from coal could hit consumers in the pocketbook.
As the policy debate continues, Wanzenried says the only immediate change that anyone can make comes in the form of day-to-day decisions. Even minor lifestyle adjustments like turning down the thermostat and insulating homes decreases energy demand and, in turn, shapes a more sustainable future.
But real change will require a wholesale effort and, as Wanzenried says, "We may not have that much time."