By Johnathan Hettinger, Montana Free Press

A bill that seeks to reverse $2.5 million in potential penalties on NorthWestern Energy for failing to help communities develop renewable energy projects is drawing criticism from environmental and tribal groups across Montana.

Senate Bill 237, introduced by Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, seeks to eliminate a part of the state’s renewable portfolio standard that requires utilities to help communities develop renewable energy projects. As part of the bill, $2.5 million in court-proposed fines for NorthWestern Energy’s noncompliance — money that would go directly to energy assistance programs — would also be reversed.

Bill opponents say NorthWestern has continually disregarded the law and company shareholders should not be rewarded by taking money from tribal and low-income communities.

“Each legislative session it seems like we find new ways to make lives harder for reservations and urban Native Americans in Montana,” said Keaton Sunchild, political director for Western Native Voice and a member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe. “This bill is going to severely harm Native Americans in Montana.”

The bill passed the Senate by a 31-19 vote, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats voting against. NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities have expressed support for the bill.

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