An unlikely alliance has formed in opposition to a Ronan lawmaker’s environmental bill.
At Wednesday’s hearing of the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee, representatives from the Montana Petroleum Association, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the Montana Audubon Society and other environmental groups all spoke against the proposal by Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan.
Read’s bill, which would take effect in 2021, states that a state agency “may not implement or enforce in any way any federal regulation, rule, or policy implementing a federal greenhouse gas regulatory program.” It also prohibits state officials or employees from serving on any kind of body meant to craft federal greenhouse gas emissions.
Opponents found it at odds with a cornerstone federal environmental policy — the Clean Air Act — and how it’s enforced in Montana. While the law is federal, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality handles its permitting for the state, except in Indian Country.
For years, there’s been a possibility that this task will expand to cover greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency has the legal authority to regulate these gases under the Clean Air Act. The Obama administration attempted to do so with a policy called the Clean Power Plan, but it’s been stayed as a lawsuit from Montana and 23 other states proceeds, and as the Trump Administration prepares a replacement policy.
But while the prospect of federal greenhouse gas regulations has dimmed for now, seven disparate speakers wanted to preserve Montana’s ability to participate in them.
David Klemp, air quality bureau chief with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, warned that "passing this bill would have negative consequences on Montana’s businesses and industry, as they would then be required to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency … instead of the Department [of Environmental Quality]” on permitting — a step that, he predicted, would leave them with greater costs and longer wait times.
Alan Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, shared that view. He said while many in industry supported states’ rights, “there is now federal case law that is contrary to that notion” on the issue of climate change.
Within this paradigm, Olson said that “prohibiting the state from enforcing federal greenhouse gas regulations will only remove state implementation plans or state primacy and will not solve any of the issues surrounding federal regulations.”
Derf Johnson made a similar argument, even though his group, the Montana Environmental Information Center, calls for “reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.”
Predicting that federal greenhouse gas regulations were inevitable, he asked: “Do we want to be in the driver’s seat, or do we want to have the Environmental (Protection) Agency run the show?”
“Our position is that the state of Montana should have a leading role in that.”
Speakers from the Montana Public Interest Group, the Audubon Society and the Northern Plains Council also opposed the bill.
The sole proponent was Ed Berry of Bigfork, who has long questioned the overwhelming scientific consensus that human greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change. He devoted his time to discussing that view.
Read himself has challenged the science on climate change before, in a separate bill this session and in a 2011 one that would have declared climate change a benefit to the state, drawing national criticism.
This time, Read got chuckles when he began his closing remarks. “I’d like to apologize for offending the whole state,” he said.
“I did not imply in this bill that we would walk away from all the historic progresses that we have made in fighting pollution and stuff like that...I was fighting for the right of our state, and I did not impugn, or want to step on the toes of the officials of the state, so we’ll let it go with that, and I will close on the bill."
The Committee took no action on the bill. But its chair, Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, congratulated Read for “bringing everybody together to say that the EPA is a little bit heavy-handed.”
He also thanked the committee for its handling of this sometimes-charged topic.
“Climate change,” he remarked, “is like the abortion of energy."