By Anne Hedges
In October, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Thiel Road Coalition, MEIC, and Northern Plains Resource Council, asked a state district court judge to decide who is responsible for local zoning regulations that govern NorthWestern Energy’s proposed methane gas plant near Laurel. NorthWestern Energy spent the fall of 2021 trying to convince the City of Laurel to change the zoning on the parcel of land where it wants to build a 175-megawatt methane gas plant. A year later, NorthWestern is behaving as if such approval is unnecessary and is moving forward with the project.
During the City’s rezoning process last fall, the Thiel Road Coalition – a community near the plant site – and many others raised questions about NorthWestern’s proposed plant and its impact on nearby residents and businesses, public health, safety, and the Yellowstone River corridor adjacent to the site. However, after months of debate, NorthWestern abruptly withdrew its application for a zone change in December 2021. In late spring, NorthWestern started building the plant. The people living near the proposed plant site were left with nowhere to turn to raise their concerns or get answers to their questions about the plant’s impacts.
Despite previous statements from city and county government officials that the city had to rezone the land to allow NorthWestern to build an industrial plant on the site, a new city contract attorney decided otherwise. In September, the City of Laurel issued a press release based upon her new legal theory and said the City’s hands were tied and it had no role to play in rezoning the land. Instead, the press release said Yellowstone County was responsible for the site despite the fact that Yellowstone County has never claimed such jurisdiction.
The issue is the City’s “extraterritorial jurisdiction” to regulate lands near the City. The city’s growth policy covers the NorthWestern parcel. The county’s growth policy does not. The City implemented zoning of the parcel decades ago. The County has never exercised or claimed jurisdiction over the area; instead, it has said it is the City’s job to do so. The City and County staff and NorthWestern all agreed last year that NorthWestern needed a zone change from the City before it could proceed. The City held numerous public hearings on this request. Now, everyone is pointing at someone else, leaving the concerned neighbors with no recourse other than to ask the court to rule on whether the City has jurisdiction.
Finally, MEIC is still waiting for a decision from a state district court judge in Billings on the scope of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) environmental analysis for NorthWestern’s air pollution permit. DEQ is arguing that the law prohibits it from considering the climate impacts of the plant and that it did not have to analyze and disclose the impacts of the pipeline that will provide methane gas from Wyoming and travel under the Yellowstone River near residences. The court hearing on that case was held in June and a decision is expected at any time.
This article was published in the Dec. 2022 issue of Down To Earth.