Fall guy 

Rossbach removal reflects environmental rift

After certain energy development projects stalled this year, Senate Republicans found their scapegoat: Missoula attorney Bill Rossbach.
In a legislative session marked by aggressive attempts to streamline environmental permitting processes and spur natural resource development, Senate Republicans looked to get rid of any perceived hurdle. Turns out that hit list includes Missoula attorney Bill Rossbach.

Rossbach, who was named to the state’s Board of Environmental Review by Gov. Brian Schweitzer in 2004, was ousted earlier this month when 26 of 27 Senate Republicans voted against his reappointment. Every Democrat, meanwhile, voted for him.

“I think the perception is that he is the one that had the most negative votes on energy development projects,” says Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby.

The Senate Republicans’ vote effectively tagged Rossbach the scapegoat for development projects said to be slowed or thwarted by environmental regulations, namely the controversial Highwood Generating Station. Developers of the proposed 250-megawatt coal-fired power plant east of Great Falls put the project on ice in February because of what they deemed an unfavorable “regulatory climate.”

Whatever the specific reason, Rossbach recognizes that his removal was purely political. He, as well as other observers, believe the move was made by pro-industry politicians wanting to assert their authority and take a shot at Schweitzer.

“What happened is this: They went back to caucus, and whoever has the power in that Republican caucus said, ‘We’re going to make a statement to Gov. Schweitzer, we’re all going to vote on this and Rossbach’s going to be the guy who goes down,’” says Rossbach. “They just picked me.”

The decision to single out Rossbach dates back to the board’s 6-1 vote last April requiring the Highwood developer and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to perform an additional study of the proposed power plant’s particulate emission controls. Specifically, they did not want DEQ to use a “surrogate” method, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, for measuring the smallest of fine particulate emissions. That vote became a “lightning rod,” according to Rossbach, with energy development proponents believing the additional study was unreasonable and an example of unnecessary bureaucracy. 

“To me it’s like you’re driving down the highway at 70 mph, obeying all the signs and the rules and the speed limit,” says Black, “and someone comes along behind you and changes it to 50 mph and you get stopped for violating the speed limit.”

But Rossbach says that argument became a convenient excuse for the project’s true troubles.

“Rather than saying, ‘We made a mistake, the project isn’t doable, the project isn’t economical,’ they want to blame somebody else,” he says. “They don’t want to take responsibly for their own problems. So they grasp on this surrogate thing as some sort of truth. And the truth is, they got the permit anyway. They went back, followed the rules and got their permit.”

It was after they received the permit that the developer, Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission, put the coal-fired power plant on hold, announcing their intentions to pursue natural gas and wind energy instead.

Still, when it came time for the vote on Rossbach’s reappointment, bitterness over the stalled plant remained.

“I think it’s bogus,” says Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC). “I think it’s terribly unfortunate that the Republicans have decided to make him the scapegoat of one decision among the thousands that the board makes that they happen to disagree with.”

Even worse, Hedges says, is that the board now loses Rossbach’s experience. Rossbach has 30 years of science litigation under his belt, including work on prominent cases like the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“He was one of the most valuable board members we’ve had in over a decade because he has experience in this arena already,” Hedges says. “He brought a tremendous amount of history and knowledge to the board. And there are very few attorneys out there who have that knowledge from the get-go.”

Schweitzer spokeswoman Sarah Elliott says the governor will now look for another attorney to fill Rossbach’s position. She also expressed frustration with the Senate’s decision not to reappoint him.

“We think it was a partisan move, for one reason or another,” she says. “I wouldn’t speculate, but Bill is clearly a very qualified person to sit on that board, so it was a decision that Senate Republicans made to block his nomination.”

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, was the one Republican to vote for Rossbach. After reviewing Rossbach’s record, Shockley didn’t see the logic of his colleagues’ vote.

“I looked into it and I found out that if I was Bill and I was following the law I probably would have done the same thing he did,” says Shockley, specifically referencing the Highwood decision. “So I supported him on the floor.”

The fact that other Senate Republicans overlooked Rossbach’s experience—the only qualifying criteria to sit on the board—shows the political nature of the decision. Unfortunately, Hedges says it also exemplifies Helena’s current anti-environment climate.

“It’s been the name of the game this session that we need to weaken our environmental laws, we need to grease the skids for industry, so that they can have their way with the resources of this state with little to no oversight from government,” she says. “I think industry was flexing its muscles by getting Rossbach rejected. I think it’s absolutely part of the whole puzzle.”
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