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.

The House Energy, Technology, and Federal Relations Committee has held a hearing on the bill but has not yet advanced it.

The bill is one of many in the state Legislature that deprioritize renewable energy and promote fossil fuels, but this one is unique in that it would redirect money owed to tribal and low-income communities to NorthWestern shareholders.

In a hearing on House Bill 576, which would eliminate the renewable portfolio standard altogether, NorthWestern Director of Government Affairs David Hoffman proposed to link the two bills together. The committee has not yet decided whether to include such an amendment. 

Passed in 2005, the Montana renewable portfolio standard requires utility providers to produce a certain amount of renewable energy, including wind, solar and geothermal. As part of the state’s RPS, beginning in 2012 utilities are also required to help local communities generate renewable energy.

NorthWestern Energy has continually failed to do so. In 2019, a Montana judge ruled that NorthWestern illegally put off developing community renewable energy projects in 2015 and 2016 — failures that could expose the company to $2.5 million in penalties. NorthWestern has appealed the decision. By contrast, Montana-Dakota Utilities has complied with the program, said Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs at the Montana Environmental Information Center, which sued NorthWestern over its lack of compliance. 

The penalty monies, if ultimately imposed, would go to energy assistance programs that serve both low-income and tribal communities. From there, the money would likely go to emergency assistance funds to help people pay their utility bills.

Many tribal communities don’t have the renewable energy systems they would otherwise have had if NorthWestern followed the law, Sunchild said.

George Price, a retired Native Americans Studies lecturer at the University of Montana and member of the Assonet Band of the Wampanoag Nation who lives near Dixon, said SB 237 demonstrates the “customary impunity” that corporations have for poor people, and that reversal of the penalties and lack of continued investment would harm many poor white people as well. 

Jim Morton, executive director of the District XI Human Resource Council in Missoula, which serves as a low-income energy assistance program and would receive some of the fine money, said it’s not just the money that helps. NorthWestern Energy also has expertise in engineering that can benefit smaller groups working to develop renewable energy projects.

“It’s easier for the utility if they don’t have to do this, but they haven’t been doing it,” Morton said. “It doesn’t mean, as consumers, that we should be OK with it. We should expect more of a utility. It’s a monopoly. We don’t have a choice.”

This story was updated March 27 and March 29, 2021, to clarify that the court decision proposing penalties on NorthWestern Energy is under appeal, and that the decision was based on the company’s failure to help communities generally — not only low-income and tribal communities — develop renewable energy projects.

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Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.