By Anne Hedges
Three bills stand out this session for their direct attacks on local governments’ authority to keep communities safe and healthy in the face of fossil fuel interests. Two bills prohibit local governments from limiting the use of petroleum products and gas, and the other deals with cryptocurrency and its voracious energy demand and its impacts in residential areas.
Propping Up Methane
Methane gas, often referred to as “natural” gas, is only natural when it remains underground. Once the gas is brought to the surface, the methane poses a risk to the health and safety of those living in the vicinity of gas systems. Methane is a highly volatile substance that warms the climate and releases harmful pollutants when it leaks or when it is combusted. Years of government data shows methane gas pipelines that carry gas from the oil field to our homes leak, often causing serious accidents and deaths each year. NorthWestern Energy’s gas infrastructure is no exception. NorthWestern has 4,900 miles of gas pipelines across Montana, which leak at a rate of 9.7 leaks per 100 miles of pipelines. That is 475 leakages in the system, according to NorthWestern’s recent report to investors.
Pipeline leakages are extremely dangerous. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration keeps track of such incidents across the nation. Over the last 20 years, there have been more than 12,000 incidents resulting in the destruction of property and during that time more than 1,300 people have been injured or killed due to gas system accidents. Montana is no exception: in 2009, there was a methane gas leak in Bozeman that resulted in a deadly explosion.
The gas system also creates many harmful pollutants, exposure to which can cause asthma, lung infections, cardiovascular issues, and learning disabilities. These chemicals are regulated on the federal level because of their harmful impact on public health. Unfortunately, these pollutants are not regulated at the residential level unless state or local governments choose to do so. That’s why many communities across the country are prohibiting new development from having gas hookups. The national debate is in regards to the use of gas appliances in new buildings, but the Montana Legislature took it to the next level.
SB 228 by Sen. Jason Small (R-Busby) is breathtaking in its scope. The bill makes it illegal for local governments to “prohibit the purchase or use of petroleum fuels or the installation or use of any machinery, vehicles, vessels, tools, facilities, appliances, or equipment that burn or transport petroleum fuels.” In other words, local governments cannot limit the location of any company or operation that uses oil, gas, diesel, kerosene, propane or dozens of other petroleum-based chemicals. Local governments will have no say in the location of methane gas power plants or petroleum refineries, tank farms, gas stations, pipelines, trucks, etc. Local governments’ hands will be tied even if a potentially dangerous operation wants to locate near a daycare or school.
SB 208, also by Sen. Small, prohibits the Department of Labor and Industry from including any language in the state building codes that bans or limits the use of any energy resources, e.g., methane gas. This bill also denies local governments any power to “prohibit or impede the connection” of any fossil fuel infrastructure in their jurisdictions. This precludes cities and counties from addressing the concerns of their constituents who want to take meaningful action on greenhouse gas emissions through stretch codes or regulations.
The other bill that undermines local control to the benefit of the fossil fuel industry deals with cryptocurrency operations and their voracious appetite for electricity to run their souped-up computers, known as miners. SB 178 (Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings) will prevent the taxation of cryptocurrency as well as prevent local governments from enacting regulations to protect residents from the noise and operation of existing cryptocurrency facilities in residential areas, even if the operation expands.
This article was published in the June 2023 issue of Down To Earth.