By Anne Hedges
Nearly 100 people attended the Missoula hearing. Photo by Katy Spence.
Time and time again, when attempts arise to weaken the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), Montanans show up to ask the state to comply with its Constitutional obligation “to maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” More than 300 people turned out for purported “listening sessions” held by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in October regarding how to “streamline” MEPA and what to do about a court-ordered climate analysis.
While MEPA implements Montanans’ Constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, the Legislature and DEQ pretend that a stable climate is not a part of the “environmental life support system” that is protected in the Constitution. Fortunately for us, hundreds of people at the hearings in Billings, Helena, and Missoula politely disagreed and insisted that the State do its job.
Contrary to the State’s prior (and ongoing) approach, two district courts recently said the state must consider climate impacts when conducting environmental reviews under MEPA. In May, a Billings district court agreed with MEIC, Earthjustice, and Sierra Club when it required the state to consider the climate impacts of NorthWestern Energy’s Laurel gas plant. DEQ has yet to conduct the required analysis six months later.
In August, a Helena district court in Held v. State of Montana said the constitution requires the State to consider the climate impacts of proposed projects under MEPA. DEQ continues to issue fossil fuel permits that fail to consider climate change.
Despite telling the court under oath that it could analyze climate impacts in MEPA decisions, DEQ continues to feign confusion about its legal obligation. These “public listening sessions” and year-long stakeholder group process are just more stall tactics. The stakeholder group – sure to be rigged in favor of the fossil fuel industry – is purportedly intended to uncover how MEPA can be “fixed.” However, DEQ has no authority to do such a thing; state agencies are required to follow the law as written by the legislature or interpreted by the courts. Only the Legislature can change a law such as MEPA, which it did earlier this year.
The 2023 Legislature ignored thousands of public comments arguing against weakening MEPA, passing two laws that were found to be unconstitutional in the Held case only a few months later. Now, the State is attempting to avoid compliance with the court for at least another year, while the planet experiences record heat, drought, storms, floods, and widespread death.
The tools to analyze climate impacts in Montana exist. The federal government has spent years perfecting a widely-used metric called the “social cost of greenhouse gases,” which puts a monetary figure on each ton of greenhouse gas that goes into the atmosphere. (See the following page for more information.) DEQ could easily do this same analysis for proposed projects.
Only a handful of industry lobbyists attended the MEPA listening sessions to claim MEPA needs to be fixed. Everyone else earnestly asked DEQ to finally do its job and consider climate impacts in state projects.
“As a young person who loves Montana, loves being outdoors, who wants to raise a family and wants to live here, I urge you to listen to the voices of my peers and even more importantly those who are younger than me. I urge you to see them and hear them,” said Isabel Shaida from Bozeman.
Tom Caffery, a Helena high school teacher, wisely said, “There is not a right way to do the wrong thing.”
John Herrin, a former DEQ employee who spent years writing environmental impact statements for coal mines, said, “We are facing the worst nightmare you can put into a movie.”
Many other voices joined them: high school students showed up to beg for a livable future, elderly folks spoke on behalf of their grandchildren, ranchers spoke about climate impacts on agriculture, as well as doctors, lawyers, college professors… The list goes on.
That leaves only one remaining question for DEQ: will it protect our constitutional rights or will it continue to stall while the planet burns?
This article was published in the December 2023 issue of Down To Earth.