Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs, left, listens as Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad urges fellow members of the Climate Solutions Council to address the impacts of greenhouse gas emission reductions on the state's labor force in Jan. 2020. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / Montana Free Press

Gov. Steve Bullock’s Climate Solutions Council officially reached the halfway mark in its deliberations this week with the approval of a suite of draft recommendations designed to bring greenhouse gas emissions from Montana’s electrical grid to net-zero by 2035. 

Those recommendations will go to the public for comment on Jan. 31, kickstarting the second phase of the council’s work as it rushes to meet the June 15 deadline Bullock set for a finalized Montana Climate Solutions Plan.

The panel rolled-out the draft recommendations during a two-day meeting on the University of Montana campus in Missoula Jan. 27 and 28. With white papers from the council’s three subcommittees projected at the front of the conference room, the 25 council members took up a host of topics including forest management, agricultural and rangeland practices, carbon sequestration, and mandatory emissions reporting for industries that produce more than 25,000 metric tons of greenhouse gasses annually. Council members showed near-unanimous support for forwarding on many of the recommendations to the public, speeding through rigorous discussions and leaving less developed items in what Patrick Holmes, Bullock’s natural resource policy advisor, called the “parking lot” for later debate.

The proceedings were dizzying, even hard to follow at times, a reflection of the wide-ranging and web-like impacts the current climate crisis is already having on Montana and the globe. Cathy Whitlock, a professor at Montana State University’s Montana Institute on Ecosystems, spoke for several minutes on Monday about the need to improve how health care professionals gather and report data on health conditions related to environmental factors such as drought and wildfires. There’s little question that climate change has an effect on human health, but Whitlock underscored the need to better understand the extent of those effects.

“It’s not just the physical illnesses, but the mental issues,” Whitlock said. “The human health, the mental health and the community health are all impacted.”

“We owe it to [the earth] to stop just doing reports and minimal things. We need to act with urgency. And I ask please to start using the right language … because then we can match the actions to meet up with that.” 

– Missoula resident Leticia Romero

The most concrete recommendations came Tuesday from the council’s Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Strategies committee. Those recommendations included establishing a pay-for-performance program that would require utilities to compensate building owners for the energy they save, extending the five-year property tax holiday for community solar projects, and setting up a mobile home replacement program to address the extreme energy inefficiencies of older mobile homes that are common throughout Montana. As the number of recommendations involving financial incentives grew, Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad raised the question of where the state might find those funds.

“If we are at the apex of where we’re going to start building all sorts of renewable energy, we have to start looking at how do they contribute to the tax base of this state, not how do they take away from it,” Ekblad said.

Several recommendations passed with opposition from council members representing NorthWestern Energy, the Montana Petroleum Association and the Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association. Among them was a proposal to increase the state’s net-metering cap from 50 kilowatts to 250 kilowatts, mirroring an effort that has repeatedly failed in the Montana Legislature. Despite his vote against it, David Hoffman, a council member and the director of governmental affairs at NorthWestern Energy, agreed it’s time to discuss the issue in more detail.

“Now’s the time to address it because the net metering class is so small,” Hoffman told Montana Free Press. “There’s really no impact. We have 2,500 roughly solar net metering customers out of 360,000. But when that gets to 25,000 or 100,000, then those remaining customers are going to start to see the impact.”

The length and depth of the council’s discussions left one key issue crunched for time on Tuesday. Ekblad attempted to summarize the perilous position Montana’s labor force could be thrust into by radical change in the energy sector. It’s a challenge the state has been struggling to resolve for years, one that primarily revolves around miners and coal plant workers in the Colstrip community. Ekblad’ pitched a recommendation that places more emphasis on workplace apprenticeships over job retraining, and perhaps making those apprenticeships a condition of tax breaks and incentives offered to the renewable energy and reclamation sectors. 

“We need to find pathways both for new workers and for workers that are going to transition from their current jobs in power, transportation, all sorts of other things, to make that transition while still being able to support their families,” Ekblad told the council. “And apprenticeship, the underlying principle there is you earn while you learn.” 

As the council’s work goes live, Montanans will finally begin to understand how a statewide climate solutions plan might bolster localized efforts to combat the climate crisis. Amy Cilimburg, executive director of Climate Smart Missoula, helped Missoula city and county officials reach a joint resolution last spring to shift to 100% clean electricity community-wide by 2030. Such goals will be difficult to attain given the current landscape of state and federal law, Cilimburg told MTFP, and some of the recommendations put forth by Bullock’s climate council will ease those difficulties.

“There’s a lot of recommendations that we just decided to move forward around energy efficiency and how we could allow for and facilitate that, and that would really help us locally be able to meet our 100% clean electricity goal,” said Cilimburg, who serves on Bullock’s council. “It’s very difficult to do because we need enabling legislation, we need support from the state.”

“We need to find pathways both for new workers and for workers that are going to transition from their current jobs in power, transportation, all sorts of other things, to make that transition while still being able to support their families.”

– Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad

While the proposals set to go before the public will provide the first detailed look at how a rapidly assembled state plan might grapple with a global crisis, there was little talk during the Missoula meeting of a larger question posed in Bullock’s executive order: the determination of a specific date by which Montana can reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide. And council members occasionally wrestled with the fact that many of the more than 50 recommendations drafted to-date aren’t directly targeted at reducing emissions. 

The frustration some citizens feel over a perceived lack of action by the state in the face of an urgent crisis was voiced throughout public comment at the meetings this week. Leticia Romero, a Missoula resident and mother, played audio of an air raid siren into a microphone and scolded the council for not using language that reflects the immediacy of the issue.

“We owe it to [the earth] to stop just doing reports and minimal things,” Romero said. “We need to act with urgency. And I ask please to start using the right language … because then we can match the actions to meet up with that.” 

After her comment, Romero crossed to a side of the conference room behind a line of council members and spent the final half-hour of Monday’s meeting holding a cardboard sign above her head. In black sharpie, it read “climate collapse.”

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...