Natural Disaster 

Republican legislators wage war on Montana's environmental laws

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Take the SJ 10 hearing on Feb. 4, which devolved into an ill-informed debate about the science behind global climate change.

"I have a greenhouse at home," said Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, in questioning Hedges' testimony. "I put dry ice in there to increase the CO2, and it helps to grow the plants a lot. So I'm wondering why is there such a big thing about this CO2 when it actually increases vegetative growth?"

"Is it warmer in your greenhouse than it is outside?" Hedges replied. "That's the problem."

"Sometimes," Hinkle said.

Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, said he's spent four years reading about climate change, and has "two suitcases full of books" to prove it. But he claims he hasn't come across "an experiment using the scientific method" that demonstrates that carbon dioxide—which he asserts is "certainly not a pollutant," even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that it is one—contributes to climate change.

"The only thing I could find in terms of global warming is the energy from the sun, which is very well documented," Jackson said. "I could not find a correlation between global warming and carbon dioxide."

click to enlarge Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, wants to weaken the Montana Environmental Policy Act. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, wants to weaken the Montana Environmental Policy Act.

Answered Hedges: "The greenhouse effect is really well understood. It's replicated every day in Sen. Hinkle's greenhouse."

Many industry groups believe they stand to gain from the stripping away of impediments to resource extraction and incentives for renewable energy. Several associations and corporations lined up to voice their support for SJ 10. Among them was Arch Coal, Inc., the country's second largest coal producer. It paid Montana $86 million last year for the right to mine the Otter Creek coal tracts in southeastern Montana. The Montana Coal Council, Cloud Peak Energy, Montana Petroleum Association, Montana Electric Cooperatives Association, Western Environmental Trade Association and the Montana Wood Products Association also testified in favor of dropping carbon dioxide regulations.

Two Tea Party activists also testified in favor of SJ 10, including Tim Ravndal of Helena's Lewis and Clark's Conservative Tea Party (who, incidentally, was removed as president of the Big Sky Tea Party Association last fall after joking on Facebook about murdering homosexuals).

"The development of natural resources in Montana creates jobs," Ravndal said. "EPA kills jobs."

On Feb. 9, the EPA, at the behest of two congressmen, released a whitepaper detailing the economic benefits of the Clean Air Act, particularly to the environmental technologies industry. By 2008 it was generating some $300 billion in annual revenues and directly supporting nearly 1.7 million jobs, according to Environmental Business Journal. Air pollution control equipment alone generated revenues of more than $18 billion in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. From 1990 through 2020, the EPA projects the monetary value of the Clean Air Act's protection to exceed the cost of that protection by a factor of more than 30 to 1.

"I think the Priest resolution gets to the heart of what [Republicans are] saying, which is, 'There's no such thing as a benefit of environmental protections—of clean air or clean water. There are no benefits to those. There are only costs. And that the only good industries are high-carbon industries,'" Hedges says. "They turn a blind eye toward the emerging low-carbon economy that's not just occurring here but all over the world."

•••

Job creation is offered as justification for just about every bill intended to undermine environmental protections, including a highly controversial constitutional amendment.

House Bill 292, sponsored by first-term Rep. Dan Kennedy, R-Laurel, attempts to tinker with the language in the Montana Constitution that guarantees the right to a "clean and healthful environment." The language, adopted in 1972, makes the constitution one of the most progressive in the country. In 1999, the Montana Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the right to a clean and healthful environment is fundamental and intended to be preventative in nature.

Many conservative legislators believe all the language prevents is job creation. In fact, Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, goes so far as to call the constitutional amendment a "jobs bill."

"Let's get the record straight," he said on the House floor two weeks ago. "Every time something has tried to be permitted, including Highwood [Generating Station outside Great Falls] and mines in this state, it's been taken to court under the 'clean and healthful environment' [provision]. It's always taken to court under that portion of the constitution...It was put in there to stop coal mining and any advancement of economic development of our natural resources in the state of Montana."

click to enlarge Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, a polished and articulate businessman, stands out among the new crop of conservative legislators swept into state office last November. He’s behind a handful of bills intended to remove incentives for energy efficiency. “A mandate is an explicit recognition that it’s not a good resource allocation,” he says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, a polished and articulate businessman, stands out among the new crop of conservative legislators swept into state office last November. He’s behind a handful of bills intended to remove incentives for energy efficiency. “A mandate is an explicit recognition that it’s not a good resource allocation,” he says.

That theory is why Kennedy proposes changing the language to instead guarantee "the right to a clean, healthful and economically productive environment."

Democrats on the House floor argued vehemently against the change, challenging the assertion that the inalienable right to a clean and healthful environment has halted economic development, and calling it a political diversion from lawmaking that might actually create jobs. Rep. Betsy Hands, D-Missoula, said it's telling that no small business owners are fighting for the bill.

"This bill creates confusing and contradictory language, and the only way this bill creates jobs is if it creates jobs for the lawyers...and that's not what we were sent here to do," Hands said.

First-term Rep. Ellie Hill, also of Missoula, said Montanans rejected amending the constitution last November when they voted down convening a constitutional convention.

Rep. Franke Wilmer, D-Bozeman, said mandating economic productivity is "central to socialist philosophy," and found in the Cuban and Chinese constitutions. And Rep. Mike Menahan, D-Helena, pointed out that the courts have never used the provision to stop any mine or industrial project. He said it's a "fundamental right within the fabric of other rights" and it's "never been used to the exclusion of any other right."

Still, on Feb 4., the House voted 68-32 to pass the bill on second reading. Despite the lopsided vote, opponents of the bill seated in the House gallery cheered; even if all 28 Republicans in the Senate vote for the bill, the bill would still fall four votes shy of the 100 needed to place the amendment on the ballot in 2012.

While the "clean and healthful" provision hasn't served to stop resource extraction in Montana, Elizabeth Kronk, an assistant professor of law at the University of Montana, says changing it would have real consequences.

"What concerns me about the language 'economically productive' is it's a view that the environment is to be used for economic development, and that's an interesting question for Montanans," Kronk says. "Is that how we view our environment, for development purposes? Is it for natural resource extraction? And I don't think that's a settled question in Montana. I think there's a bigger issue there that really strikes at the core of Montana, which is, Are we going to protect our environment or our we going to develop it, and potentially destroy it?"

Hedges says the "clean and healthful" provision "is a right Montanans can rely on if their backs are ever up against a wall."

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