Ochenski 

Severe consequences: Fearing more Trojan horses in the legislature

Gov. Brian Schweitzer issued an amendatory veto of the controversial horse-slaughter bill last week. The governor said HB 418, which is sponsored by Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, hides “unintended consequences,” and he sent it back to the Legislature with amendments to remove the sections he saw as problematic. While the governor did the right thing on this bill, it’s not the only measure in this session with the potential for serious unintended consequences—some of which the governor supports.

Butcher’s bill would have prohibited courts from issuing injunctions to “stop or delay construction of a horse-slaughtering facility based on legal challenges or appeals of a permit, license, certificate, or other approval issued in conjunction with environmental laws.” It would also require significant bonding for challenges to the permitting or construction of such a facility, as well as potential liability for losses suffered by the plant’s owners. 

In his comments to the press at the time of the veto, Schweitzer compared the bill to the famous Trojan horse, saying: “Like the belly of the Trojan horse, there are these unintended consequences that as you open the latch and they all fall out, they start taking rights away from the citizens of Montana.”

Not surprisingly, Butcher came unglued at Schweitzer’s amendments, telling reporters in his own inimitable way:  “All we’ve simply said is after they have been legally approved, that they can’t be harassed. Why should a business have some two-bit hippie sending in the $1,200 filing fee and stopping a five or six million dollar business?”

I don’t know about “two-bit hippies,” but there are plenty of good reasons why a Montana citizen might want to challenge a horse-slaughtering facility, the key among them being every citizen’s constitutional right to a “clean and healthful” environment.  Unfortunately, it seems in vogue this legislative session to pass bills that significantly reduce the rights of citizens under the rubric of “streamlining” environmental permitting. Leading the rogue’s list would be Schweitzer’s favorite topic: energy development.

As discussed in last week’s column, HB 483, the horrendous energy development act sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, contains provisions similar to those Schweitzer seeks to strike from Butcher’s horse-slaughter bill. The measure has already passed the Legislature and is sitting on Schweitzer’s desk. Unlike the theoretical horse slaughtering plant, there’s plenty of interest in energy development in Montana right now. 

Take SB 498, the carbon-sequestration bill sponsored by Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter. The measure intends to provide a legal framework for storing enormous quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal plants underground. Schweitzer had threatened to veto the bill unless it defined who owns the underground “pore space,” but now supports it.  If you believe the rap from the governor and other coal development advocates, we can safely capture the CO2 from coal plants, compress it, send it through pipelines, inject it into the earth at enormous pressures, and then pull it back out to re-inject it into old oil or gas fields for enhanced recovery. As the bill is currently written, after 20 years of storage the state could be liable for any long-term consequences that may arise—unintended or otherwise.

Since the technology has yet to be applied on a large, industrial scale anywhere in the nation, what may or may not happen remains largely theoretical. That the governor wants Montana’s environment to be the guinea pig for the coal industry is both incongruous with his position on the horse-slaughter bill and, given the potentials for ground and surface water pollution, leaks or potentially fatal blow-outs, is downright risky.  As Art Noonan, D-Butte, the chair of the House committee now considering the bill and its 54 amendments, told reporters: “When you have a decision of this consequence show up with this many amendments, it makes me a little skeptical that we have not, in fact, cooked this piece of legislation longer.”

Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency, which will have the federal regulatory authority, has yet to issue any carbon storage rules and isn’t expected to until 2011 at the earliest. Schweitzer will be long-gone from the governor’s office if and when his gamble with our future goes bad and the multitude of “unintended consequences” begins to appear.

Unfortunately, energy development isn’t the only issue with unintended consequences these days. There’s the so-called “gun bill,” sponsored by Rep. Joel Boniek, R-Livingston, that would exempt Montanans from federal gun regulations provided the firearms, weapons components, and ammunition are made in Montana and stay here. According to Boniek, HB 246 isn’t about guns, but about states’ rights.

It’s possible to imagine many consequences of this bill, but one thing leaps out immediately: The state will likely have to spend lots of money to defend the law in the U.S. Supreme Court when challenged by the federal government—and Montana’s hard-pressed taxpayers will have to pay for it.

Along the same lines, Schweitzer just sent a letter to federal officials requesting the state be allowed to take control of 15,000 acres of national forests, supposedly to provide timber for local mills. Ignoring the reality that there’s little or no demand for lumber products right now, one might easily conjure up the unintended consequences if the federal land managed by the state under Schweitzer’s plan suddenly goes up in flames. Who, then, would be responsible for the fire-fighting costs?  And if the fire spread to adjacent federal forests, would Montanans be liable for those costs as well?  Is it worth such risks simply to thin a mere 15,000 acres?

There are plenty of Trojan horses brought to us by our own elected officials right now. Montanans have learned—and paid for—the consequences of a century of mining, smelting, energy production and, most recently, energy deregulation. It would be prudent for our legislators and governor to slow down, look before they leap, and spare us from further “unintended consequences.”

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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