In the People's Interest

Brittany Trushel: GOP attacks constitutional right to a healthful environment

HB 971 is one example of bad policy passed by GOP lawmakers this session; removing a key provision of MEPA, the policy erodes our right to a clean and healthful environment.

In 1972, Montanans adopted a state constitution that included the right to a clean and healthful environment for its citizens. In the following decades, conserving Montana’s mountainsides and valleys became a beacon of pride across Big Sky Country.

The year prior, the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) required state agencies to analyze the effects of large projects. Including provisions for public input, MEPA recognizes, 

“[P]rofound impact of human activity on the interrelations of all components of the natural environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth, high-density urbanization, industrial expansion, resource exploitation, and the new and expanding technological advances, recognizing the critical importance of restoring and maintaining the environmental quality to the overall welfare and human development.” 

In April, a Yellowstone County judge revoked the permit of a NorthWestern Energy methane (i.e., natural gas) plant in Laurel, finding the Department of Environmental Quality did not fully evaluate under MEPA the plant’s effects on air quality, water quality of the Yellowstone River, or greenhouse gases (i.e., effect on climate).

Methane causes 25% of current global climate change, as it traps 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide. In addition to climate effects, the Laurel plant will release hazardous pollutants such as benzene, formaldehyde, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds are dangerous to humans, even healthy adults, increasing risks of asthma, cancer, and birth defects.

In 2022, NorthWestern Energy posted $1.5B revenue, up nearly 8% from 2021. The company intends on us paying for the Laurel plant, as each customer’s bill is estimated to increase by $7/month for construction alone. We would also pay for methane to power the facility, and with recent volatility in gas prices, the total cost to customers is unknown. The benefits of the project to everyday Montanans are hard to discern. 

In his ruling against NorthWestern Energy, District Court Judge Michael Moses remarked

“This project is one of NorthWestern Energy’s largest projects in Montana. It is up wind [sic] of the largest city in Montana. It will dump nearly 770,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year into the air. The pristine Yellowstone River is adjacent to the project. This project will have a life of more than 30 years. That amounts to in excess of 23,100,000 tons of greenhouse gases emissions directly impacting the largest city in Montana that is less than 15 miles down wind [sic]. To most Montanans who clearly understand their fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, this is a significant project.”

NorthWestern Energy described the ruling as “extreme”; however, local residents applauded the decision, feeling they were given “zero consideration” in the plant’s development. Steve Krum, Laurel resident and retired refinery employee, stated, 

“Every time we have raised concerns about the impacts this plant will have on the quality of life of the neighbors and the Yellowstone River, those concerns have been dismissed. We appreciate that our concerns finally got a fair shake in court.”

One step forward, two back

In response to Judge Moses’ ruling, Republican representatives introduced HB 971, which guts the MEPA provision directing state agencies to measure the impact of greenhouse gases from large projects. The proposal came so late in the 68th legislative session, Republican lawmakers needed to suspend the deadline to introduce new bills. HB 971 delivers the message: lawmakers set policy, not judges. 

During the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, more than 60 opponents testified against the bill; many only providing their name, as Republican Chair Gunderson allowed only one hour for testimony and questions. Democratic lawmakers described the entire process as “needlessly rushed.”

In total, more than 1,000 comments were submitted in response to the bill, with 95% in opposition. Despite widespread pushback, the governor signed HB 971 into law on May 10th. 

HB 971 comes as another lawsuit looms on the horizon; 16 young people have asked the Montana judiciary to require analysis and regulation of greenhouse gases. The first lawsuit of its kind, Held v Montana contends Montana violated the youths’ constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, by fostering fossil fuels as its primary energy source. 

Though our Republican governor believes climate change is human-caused, Montana retained climate science denier Judith Curry as an expert witness for the case. The State paid Curry $30,000 for an initial deposition in December 2022, during which she claimed her expertise for Held v Montana stems from her skills as a “great Googler and finder of information.”   

Predicting our future

While we carefully monitor winter snowpack, brace for wildfires, watch devastating floods, and witness summer temperatures choke valuable ecosystems, the effects of climate change are here. In coming years, Montana stands to lose billions of dollars in revenue from climate change.  

Considered a “look where you leap” policy, MEPA safeguarded Yellowstone County residents by ensuring we understand the full impacts of the Laurel plant on citizens’ health and wellbeing. It allows us to weigh the potential health effects of such projects against enriching shareholder pockets. HB 971 creates another hurdle for Montanans to exert their rights and safety. 

HB 971 is a standout example of bad policy passed by GOP lawmakers this session. As the majority party used their power to attack LGBTQ+ citizens, silence duly-elected lawmakers, and limit reproductive rights, here they protect an energy monopoly’s profits to the detriment of ordinary Montanans. The majority party even anticipated the upcoming court battles over these unconstitutional bills, by setting aside $2.6 million taxpayer dollars for legal defense.

Bad policy erodes rights, and HB 971 erodes our right to a clean and healthful environment.