Natural Disaster 

Republican legislators wage war on Montana's environmental laws

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Priest has also drafted a handful of bills seeking to remove incentives for energy efficiency. He says his reasoning is rooted in the belief that government shouldn't mandate certain activities with taxpayer money.

"Clearly if you have to mandate an activity, there's some question as to whether people value it," he says. "Otherwise they'd be doing it. So clearly if you have to create a system of transfers, where somebody needs a dollar, you have to tax something that produces a dollar. So very simply, mandates and regulations are about making people do things they wouldn't do by themselves, and paying for it with things they would do by themselves. You can't grow an economy that way, because economies grow when consumers and purchasers reward people for making good investment choices. A mandate is an explicit recognition that it's not a good resource allocation."

Priest's Senate Bill 226 would make it more expensive for, say, a Montanan with solar panels on their roof to send excess energy out onto the electric grid, a process known as net metering.

"Overall, the intent with that bill is to ensure that ratepayers don't pay people who are half on, half off the grid like they are electricity companies," he says. "They're not. They're wholesale power producers to the extent they produce that power, and that's how they should be compensated, and that's just fair for the other ratepayers."

But the cost to ratepayers is negligible, and opponents of the bill say it threatens dozens of Montana companies that sell and install small renewable energy systems. Ross Keogh, a planner and analyst for Sagebrush Energy, a renewable energy development company, estimates that such systems generate less than 0.04 percent of total energy generation in Montana, and collectively cost ratepayers roughly $60,000 annually. The bill also requires owners of renewable energy systems to buy additional expensive equipment.

"The impact of SB 226 barely amounts to a rounding error on the balance sheets of NorthWestern Energy," Keogh says. "Given the costs of administering SB 226, the bill will probably end up costing consumers more, and could kill an important and growing industry in Montana."

Adds Hedges: "It's a small-jobs killing bill. They're not interested in small businesses, and that bill epitomizes the fact that they're not interested in small businesses."

SB 226 passed its second reading last week by a vote of 27-22.

In addition to SB 226, Priest seeks to limit the Public Service Commission's (PSC) ability to implement inverted block rates for electric services. The current rate structure allows consumers who use less energy to be charged a lower rate, which encourages energy efficiency.

"The way the PSC was using inverted block rates was to arbitrarily...limit somebody's energy consumption," Priest says. "That's not conservation. That's called rationing. When the ratemaking choices have no connection to cost, that's called rationing. When it's connected to incremental cost it's called conservation, and I support that."

Hedges says Priest's radical ideology is trumping common sense.

"It's shocking, because energy efficiency is bad? How on earth do you justify that? It saves people money," she says.

•••

Priest's anti-government proposals extend to private property rights and, specifically, takings. Any day he's expected to introduce the Montana Property Fairness Act. It would require the government to pay a landowner any time the state diminishes the value of property by any amount—by rejecting a development, like a subdivision, for example.

click to enlarge Republicans seek to tweak the state constitution’s guarantee of the right to a “clean and healthful environment,” preferring a “clean, healthful and economically productive environment.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Republicans seek to tweak the state constitution’s guarantee of the right to a “clean and healthful environment,” preferring a “clean, healthful and economically productive environment.”

"If you're going to suggest that something is a public good then the public ought to pay for it," Priest says. "It's not reasonable to expect a small group of people—property holders or personal property holders—to bear those costs of a public good."

In 2004, 61 percent of Oregon voters enacted a similar law, Measure 37. It proved disastrous. By the end of 2007 the state had received 6,857 claims requesting $19.8 billion in compensation. That year 62 percent of Oregon voters overturned many of Measure 37's provisions.

"If they don't take somebody's property it won't cost them anything," Priest says of the potential cost of his proposal, which he says isn't modeled after Oregon's.

Hedges calls the idea "outrageous," "absurd" and "a lousy idea."

"Did you move into a house thinking what was around you would continue to be what's around you, or did you think someone was going to move in a pig farm?" she says. "That can happen under this, because government can't prohibit somebody from moving in a pig farm next to their house. They can't prohibit people from doing whatever they want.

"Oregon voters," she adds, "thought the rhetoric sounded good: 'Government shouldn't interfere with the use of your property.' And then they learned what the reality was, and they went right back and they repealed it."

There are more bills that threaten the environment. One would repeal the voter-approved initiative that requires a statewide vote on proposed nuclear power plants. Another would allow local governments to amend or dissolve conservation easements. Yet another would overturn the citizen initiative banning cyanide heap leach mining. They add up to perhaps the most significant threat ever posed to Montana's environmental protections. But time is short. Only a week remains before the session's midpoint, Feb. 24, the day general bills swap from the chamber of origin to the other.

As the clock winds down, conservationists feel mixed emotions. Hedges, steadied by the perspective gleaned through working nine legislative sessions, is already looking to 2013 and beyond.

"The pendulum swings," Hedges says. "It does. And going too far in any direction is going to be corrected down the road. When you make radical changes it's not sustaining. It gets tempered over time...This is a little tiny blip on the overall political landscape.

"We'll be here longer than them," she adds. "We're going to outlive the bastards."

But for others it's more difficult to look past the immediate undercutting of safeguards that keep Montana "clean and healthful," and the crippling of the state's burgeoning renewable energy industry.

"This is where we're building jobs in Montana," MCV's Cobler says. "And we're doing it without damaging our natural resources. It's like killing the goose that lays the golden egg...It seems like the Legislature, or some actors within the Legislature, are not just trying to chip away at the edges [of Montana's environmental protections], but they're going for very basic, foundational pieces that make Montana what it is."

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