Natural Disaster 

Republican legislators wage war on Montana's environmental laws

Anne Hedges has lobbied the Montana Legislature on behalf of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) since the early 1990s, and only on a few occasions has she found herself as exasperated as she was two weeks ago.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Joint Resolution No. 10, a measure brought forward by freshman Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, that urges the U.S. Congress to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gases. The resolution further calls on the Obama administration to undertake a study specifying the cumulative effects of all of the EPA's air quality regulations on the economy, jobs and American economic competitiveness. It also tells Congress to impose a moratorium on any new air quality regulations for at least two years—and defund the EPA's existing air quality regulatory activities during that time.

"Defund all air regulations for the next two years?" Hedges asked incredulously during her spirited 15-minute testimony before the committee. "Are you serious?" she said, looking squarely at Priest. "This is radical!

"The list of environmental regulations that protect public health is long," Hedges continued. "It's things like regulations that limit the amount of sulfur dioxide that go into Billings' air shed, that protect kids from asthma in Billings. It's limitations on things like lead emissions. The Clean Air Act has resulted in a 99 percent reduction in lead emissions across this country. It's things like reductions in dioxin and mercury and benzene and cadmium. These things protect families. They protect property values. And they protect against asthma, cancer, heart disease and death. What you're asking is to defund air regulations. That to me is a really radical notion, and I can't believe for a second that that's what your constituents really want you to do up here."

Hedges' testimony didn't appear to sway the mostly Republican committee members, although the committee did amend the language about halting the EPA's air quality regulations for two years. It left the rest of the resolution intact. On Feb. 11, SJ 10 was endorsed by a vote of 10-4.

Even if the resolution passes the House and Senate—and there's a good chance it will with Republicans controlling both chambers—it's nonbinding and can't force Congress to do anything. Hedges acknowledges this, and admits her diatribe was mostly an exercise in catharsis. Before she took the podium, Jim Jensen, MEIC's director, whispered to the person next to him, "She's loaded for bear." Afterward, Hedges told the Independent, "I love giving them a piece of my mind."

Still, SJ 10 reflects as well as any other bill being considered during the current session the level of hostility Republican legislators' hold toward the environment.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Last November's elections sent the political pendulum swinging far to the right. To Montana's conservation community, that pendulum seems more and more like a wrecking ball. Republicans so far have written bills to undermine or outright repeal the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), the state's bedrock environmental law. They're seeking to amend the constitution to declare that an "economically productive" environment is an inalienable right. A bevy of bills intend to remove incentives for renewable energy production. One proposal would even allow public water systems to use bottled water so they can achieve compliance with contamination thresholds.

Some of the bills, like the attempt to nullify the federal Endangered Species Act, appear to be only symbolic salvos. But the majority of the proposals attack laws protecting air and water and guiding natural resource development. Taken together, they signal a very clear message: Republicans, buoyed by anti-government fervor and the mantra of job creation, seek unfettered natural resource extraction—no matter the environmental consequences.

With Republicans holding 96 of 150 seats in the Legislature, only Gov. Brian Schweitzer's veto pen will stand in the way of many of these measures becoming law.

Sarah Cobler, a lobbyist with Montana Conservation Voters (MCV), calls the current attack on environmental laws "unprecedented."

"We all feel just a little bit shell-shocked, because we've made tremendous progress in the last six years or so moving incremental, positive environmental change forward," said Cobler at a recent Missoula County Conservation Roundtable meeting. "We've been very relevant to the conversation and major players at the table, and I'm not sure if I feel like we're still there...There's a lot coming down the pike right now. It just feels overwhelming."

•••

Sen. Priest, 43, a polished and articulate businessman, stands out among the new crop of conservative legislators swept into state office last November. He's a former Red Lodge City Council member, chairman of the Carbon County Republicans and founder of the Montana Growth Network, a group that supports energy development and opposes climate change legislation. A former All-American skier at Williams College in Massachusetts, Priest owns a handful of companies, including Hamilton Venture Holdings, LLC. He founded, but no longer owns, Medipent, LLC, a New York-based company that auctions off hospital debt to collection agencies.

click to enlarge Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, says he’s spent four years reading about climate change but hasn’t come across “an experiment using the scientific method” that demonstrates that carbon dioxide contributes to it. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, says he’s spent four years reading about climate change but hasn’t come across “an experiment using the scientific method” that demonstrates that carbon dioxide contributes to it.

A free-market advocate, Priest has drawn the ire of the conservation community for the long list of bills he's sponsored or requested that aggressively seek to roll back progress on a host of issues, particularly relating to renewable energy and energy efficiency. Legislative observers say Priest has a bright future as a Montana lawmaker, and progressives fear he's smart enough to be a genuine threat to their interests. (Not so smart, however, to refrain from commenting on Facebook last September that economist John Maynard Keynes is a "big homo" and suggesting President Barack Obama was sodomizing America with "the dry thumb," for which Priest later apologized.)

Priest tells the Independent he's motivated by his belief that the Montana Legislature needs to have a discussion about the costs and benefits of climate change and proposed solutions to it.

"I'm not a climate change denier," he says. "You won't hear me say there's no such thing as global warming. What you will hear me say is that there are benefits and costs to potential changes in the climate. There are benefits and costs associated with mitigation agendas. What the Legislature should do is have a discussion that's transparent. Shifting, through regulation and through transfers, the costs and benefits is opaque to the ratepayer and it's opaque to the taxpayer. And the taxpayer deserves to make an informed choice."

Priest and other far-right, first-time legislators may be behind some of the more radical bills relating to the environment, but there's little distinction to be made between them and more moderate Republicans.

"You can't tell the difference," says Kyla Wiens, MEIC's energy lobbyist. "They're all voting the same."

Beyond common ideology, some Republicans display scant knowledge of environmental issues. It can result in low-level discourse that allows talking points to mask nuances and implications of policy changes, and perpetuates the false environment-versus-economy dichotomy.

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