Natural Disaster 

Republican legislators wage war on Montana's environmental laws

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Missoula Rep. Champ Edmunds, a first-term Republican, went to Helena with the intention of repealing the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), the cornerstone of environmental policy in Montana. MEPA, which mirrors the National Environmental Policy Act, requires state agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their plans before moving forward.

"I think MEPA is a big reason why we have so many lawsuits," Edmunds tells the Independent.

Edmunds, however, dropped his bid to repeal MEPA once the session commenced. He says party leadership made it clear that "there are some other bills that are going to address MEPA that'll have the same effect, or the same outcome, that I want, which is more utilization of our natural resources."

The leading MEPA reform bill appears to be Senate Bill 233, sponsored by Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte. SB 233 would essentially make MEPA voluntary. The bill says that if a state agency fails to comply with MEPA, courts cannot stop a project from proceeding.

Edmunds believes the biggest barrier to more companies doing business in Montana is the uncertainty that MEPA presents.

click to enlarge Anne Hedges, who has lobbied the Montana Legislature on behalf of the Montana Environmental Information Center since the early 1990s, harangues the Senate Natural Resources Committee about SJ 10, a resolution that asks Congress not to regulate greenhouse gases. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Anne Hedges, who has lobbied the Montana Legislature on behalf of the Montana Environmental Information Center since the early 1990s, harangues the Senate Natural Resources Committee about SJ 10, a resolution that asks Congress not to regulate greenhouse gases.

"Businesses need to have some degree of certainty that when they come here and spend a lot of time and a lot of money moving forward on a project that they can complete it," he says.

But there's little evidence to support the notion that MEPA does anything more than delay projects—and even examples of delays are few and far between.

"To say that MEPA stops projects is inaccurate," says UM's Kronk. "At the very most it slows them down so that appropriate environmental and cultural and historical considerations can come into play, which is obviously incredibly important for Montana."

Edmunds counters by arguing that if the state delays projects long enough, companies move out.

"That's part of the tactic, in my opinion, of these extreme environmental groups," he says. "They know that if they can stall it long enough, the companies will stop moving forward and will move out. So their motive may not be to completely stop it, but just delay it, delay it, delay it, delay it. Meanwhile, the company's got millions of dollars on the line and spending thousands a day, and they finally say, 'The heck with it.'"

MEPA was already attacked once, in 2001. A bill was passed to prohibit agencies from using information discovered in the MEPA process to protect the environment unless another law authorizes it to do so. Another allows the Montana Department of Environmental Quality only six months to complete environmental impact statements after receiving a permit application.

What remains, Hedges says, is "the only information gathering tool we have left."

"It really is just about giving people information about what is going to happen to their property, to their livelihoods, to their health," she says. "The idea is that that information will help lead to better decisions, and it does...But what they want to do is get it to the point where it's just voluntary...They don't want to get rid of it entirely, because people might not be happy with that. So what they're doing is just cutting the legs out from underneath it, so there's nothing left that people can do."

SB 233 would also prohibit the consideration of regional, national or global impacts like climate change, a provision that appears intended to clear the way for the potential exportation of Montana coal, especially from Otter Creek. If Arch Coal gains regulatory approval to mine Otter Creek, some half-billion tons of coal would be shipped to Asia.

Hedges holds out hope that Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, will veto SB 233, based on his statements that Otter Creek can be mined under the state's current environmental laws.

"I don't think Schweitzer is going to fall for this," she says. "It's so shallow. MEPA hasn't prevented any projects from going forward that anybody can think of in anybody's memory."

SB 233 passed out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 7 by a vote of 10-4 and is headed to the Senate floor.

click to enlarge Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, introduced a bill to revise the definition of renewable energy resources to include hydroelectric power. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, introduced a bill to revise the definition of renewable energy resources to include hydroelectric power.

Undermining MEPA while at the same time amending the constitution to encourage resource extraction could prove to be a dangerous combination.

"The proposed change to the 'clean and healthful' provision suggests to me that there's a belief that we should move toward more natural resource development," Kronk says. "And then I become particularly concerned when I see that at the same time there's a proposal to limit or even get rid of MEPA, which is the statute that is going to help us do that in an environmentally responsible manner. So those two provisions to me, taken together, are incredibly disconcerting."

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Equally disconcerting for those promoting renewable energy are the slew of bills that take away incentives for renewable energy development and energy efficiency. One of them, Senate Bill 109, "makes my blood curdle," says MCV's Sarah Cobler.

Cobler and other opponents of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, view it as an underhanded attack on Montana's renewable energy standard, which requires that utilities get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015. Then-state Sen. Jon Tester created the standard in 2005. Barrett's bill would revise the definition of renewable energy resources to include hydroelectric power, thereby encouraging the use of energy from hydroelectric dams while effectively removing incentives for wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

"It would destroy the law that has done so much for us and I think is the biggest environmental victory in the last 10 years," Cobler says.

In early 2005, Montana produced less than one megawatt of wind energy, according to the governor's office. Now the state produces nearly 400 megawatts.

"It's working," Cobler says. "It's creating hundreds of new jobs and [leading to] hundreds of millions of dollars of capital investment in Montana in rural counties like around the Judith Gap wind farm in central Montana. It basically says Montana's open for business for clean, renewable energy resources...This bill would tinker with that definition of an eligible renewable resource to include power produced from century-old dams. They don't need incentive, right? They've been going for 100 years."

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