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by Malcolm Gilbert

Often, good bills don’t stand much chance of making it through the Montana Legislature purely because of dogmatism or ignorance. Conservative mantras tell us that progressive ideas are “too much too soon,” or that “we’re so few in Montana, over such a huge expanse, our impact is negligible on a global scale.” The rest of us, sadly, are beholden to conservative legislators’ cynical view of the world: that we don’t have control over the health of the environment nor over the integrity of Montana’s unique cultural heritage. Of course, we know this is not the case! We want to thank you for making your voices heard on these bills, even if they have been tabled (killed) in committee.

Rep. Bridget Smith (D-Wolf Point), Sen. Frank Smith (D-Poplar), and Rep. Marvin Weatherwax (D-Browning) all carried bills aimed at incorporating cultural and heritage considerations into pipeline development projects. The bills—HB 271, SB 97, and HB 417, respectively—would have had significant implications for protecting water quality and cultural resources from the Keystone XL Pipeline. Opponents to these bills cited an unnecessary burden on industry. It comes as no surprise that the sovereignty and identity of Montana tribes and their water and cultural resources are not at the forefront of the oil industry’s decision-making process.

SB 120 (Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula), would have required service industry patrons to ask for single-use plastic straws, rather than be given them automatically. A seemingly benign burden to put on consumers to cut back on a massive waste-stream, the “straw bill” died in the Senate Business and Labor Committee in large part because of concerns raised by Disability Rights Montana. SB 121 (also Sen. Sue Malek) would have imposed a 4-cent fee for single-use bags at grocery stores. Concerns about the bill ranged from business-level operations constraints (i.e., the need to adopt new accounting methods), to the cleanliness of reusable bags. SB 121 also died in the Senate Business and Labor Committee.

HB 265 (Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula), sought to eliminate styrofoam from the service industry in Montana. Styrofoam accounts for as much as one-third of the landfill volume in the U.S., and much like single-use plastic straws and bags, it never completely degrades, but instead breaks down into microplastics. Researchers have observed concentrated samples of microplastics in the Flathead and Gallatin River watersheds. Bans and fees are effective strategies for mitigating the volume of microplastics that wind up in our fields, food, and water. HB 265 was tabled in the House Business and Labor committee, again because of concerns from the Montana Retailers Association that it would impose too large a burden on retailers.

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell (D-Helena), Sen. Dick Barrett (D-Missoula), and Sen. Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) all carried bills that sought to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Dunwell’s HB 193 would have placed a modest tax on greenhouse gas emissions and required reductions in emissions over the next 30 years. Phillips’ SB 190 would have clarified the State’s position on climate change, planned for a statewide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and laid a broad framework for emissions reductions. Sen. Barrett proposed a resolution, SJ 8, directed to President Trump and the U.S. Congress, urging the federal government to better address climate change and rejoin global leaders in unified plans to address it. SJ 8, SB 190, and HB 193 were all tabled in the Senate and House Energy Committees, because of NorthWestern Energy’s and the Montana Petroleum Association’s concerns that the bills would stress industry and ultimately pass increased costs through to consumers. According to industry, the free market is making these changes on its own. By imposing rules and regulations, we’d just get in the way!

Despite these defeats, one climate bill lives on! Sen. Barrett is carrying SB 189, which would impose a modest tax on industry’s carbon emissions and provide a countervailing property tax break for lower income Montanans. Currently it awaits a vote in the Senate Energy Committee, which will occur this month. Industry rose in opposition to this bill for the same, tired old reasons. Hopefully, because it will provide some relief for homeowners and renters in the inflated housing markets of Bozeman and Missoula, the bill might pass.

Fortunately, some legislators are brave and committed enough to bring good bills forward each session that maintain momentum on key environmental issues. It’s vital we don’t view legislative roadblocks as defeat! Instead, we should view them as speed bumps on a longer road. Momentum matters!

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