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By Tom Lutey, Billings Gazette

A Republican effort making it more difficult for the public to challenge government decisions gained a new rallying cry Friday: “remember the Laurel gas-fired power plant.”

Senator Mark Noland, a Kalispell Republican had previously presented Senate Bill 557 as an unwinding of a state Supreme Court ruling against a would-be gold mine on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park. Friday the lawmaker pivoted to calling for the bill’s passage to undo a District Court’s order against a permit issued to NorthWestern Energy for a gas-fired power plant near Laurel.

The power plant has faced several legal challenges, which the utility hasn’t won. Republicans have proposed several bills plowing a regulatory road for NorthWestern’s project. Local government control and state environmental enforcement are bill targets.

At issue is the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which spells out the process for evaluating the environmental risks of projects before they can be permitted. Republicans have long tried and failed to make not following the regulatory process impervious to legal challenge. SB 557 is the latest attempt, and it is playing out as construction at NorthWestern’s power plant has been ordered to stop until state officials address environmental issues they previously ignored, specifically greenhouse gas emissions and light pollution.


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