Between an expansive drought bringing rivers and soil moisture to alarmingly low levels, a series of heat waves that have set scores of temperature records across the region, and a fast and furious start to a wildfire season that’s obscured many Montana horizons behind a haze of smoke, this summer has announced itself as a tipping point for conversations on climate change.
The ways that politicians — Republicans in particular — talk about climate change is undergoing a shift as well, with a growing number of conservative policy makers acknowledging the scientific consensus on the role humans play in the warming climate.
Among them is Montana’s Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, whose responsibility for issuing disaster declarations gives him a front-row seat to many of the impacts researchers have long warned of. He’s issued two such, regarding drought and wildfire, in the past six weeks.
As Montana’s top executive, Gianforte has the ability to influence energy policy and set statewide targets for emissions that experts say are significant contributors to the drought, heat waves and wildfires ravaging the West this summer. The actions he takes or doesn’t take during his time in office will help define the state’s role in addressing those impacts.
According to the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which is based on more than 14,000 studies and approved by 195 governments, immediate action to reduce greenhouse gases is required to spare the planet’s population from the most dire outcomes. The report, released Aug. 9, establishes a connection between human influence and climate change impacts seen in the American West, including an increase in heat extremes and droughts. Baylor Fox-Kemper, a professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University and one of the report’s authors, says past emissions are driving longer, more intense fire seasons, and that those trends are “expected to deepen as we go farther into this century.” The report finds that human action cannot keep global warming from intensifying over the next 30 years, but that there is a short window in which aggressive action can prevent an even more marked increase in the frequency and severity of events like droughts and heat waves.
“Humanity, however, must choose to act,” the report’s authors conclude.
In an attempt to understand whether Gianforte plans to act on climate change — and if so, how — Montana Free Press requested an interview with the governor to discuss the topic specifically. MTFP was granted 15 minutes in late July, during which Gianforte discussed energy policy and carbon sequestration, and advocated cutting government regulation as a means of encouraging technological innovation and forest management as a tool for reducing carbon emissions driven by wildfire — the latter the subject of a forthcoming story.
Asked first what he’d like to communicate to constituents about climate change, Gianforte led with an affirmation that the climate is changing. He said that as a scientist himself, he has an interest in what the data says about climate change, and he knows that Montanans are facing the impacts now in the form of drought and wildfire. He said humans play a role in driving climate change, and that “American ingenuity” can help mitigate it.
“To help the state, the country and the world, we’ve got to focus on American innovation and ingenuity,” Gianforte said. “We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, but we can get the friction out of the way so innovators and entrepreneurs can pursue [solutions].”
That approach shares commonalities with the recently formed Conservative Climate Caucus, a coalition of 68 congressional Republicans who acknowledge that the burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change and say the solution isn’t increased government regulation, but innovation and entrepreneurship.
Gianforte cited his creation of the Red Tape Relief Task Force, an advisory council tasked with identifying excessive and outdated regulations, as an action that could facilitate climate change solutions. He said he’s instructed state department heads, including the directors of the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, to take stock of unnecessary or redundant regulations within their agencies.
The approach Gianforte outlined leans heavily on the private sector to bring solutions to market, but includes little in the way of statewide programs or initiatives centered specifically on reducing the state’s contributions to climate change.
Gianforte’s recent decision to withdraw Montana from the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of states committed to following recommendations outlined in the 2015 Paris Accord, has left many Montanans wondering if he has a plan or policy to take its place.
If he does, he hasn’t disclosed it.
Asked in a follow-up email if the governor has established any specific or measurable targets to reach climate goals, spokesperson Brooke Stroyke responded, “… you can’t set arbitrary, predictive limitations on innovation, and we can’t and shouldn’t put guardrails on innovation and ingenuity to address climate change.”
Gianforte’s Montana Comeback Plan, to which the governor has frequently referred as a blueprint for his administration’s priorities, doesn’t mention climate change, though it does call for the state to “responsibly develop” Montana resources such as minerals, coal, oil, gas and timber.
Last year, Gianforte’s predecessor, former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, released a Montana Climate Solutions Plan that outlined strategies for bringing Montana’s net greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the electricity sector by 2035, and recommended the state reach net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050.
Asked if that Climate Solutions Plan would play a role in Gianforte’s response to climate change, Stroyke replied that the governor would “consider any ideas that focus on American innovation and ingenuity to address our changing climate.”
A HANDS-OFF APPROACH TO ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION
Champions of Gianforte’s agenda claim that excessive regulation and permitting processes require businesses to duplicate or even triplicate their work, stunting innovation. They say initiatives such as the Red Tape Relief Task Force could lower the cost of doing business in Montana and thus facilitate the development of emerging technologies such as geothermal energy and advanced nuclear reactors that can reduce industrial reliance on fossil fuels.
At the other end of the political spectrum, conservation groups arguing for more aggressive governmental action on climate say Gianforte should be actively steering the state away from reliance on fossil fuels and aggressively recruiting renewable energy companies.
Kendall Cotton is a longtime advocate and spokesperson for conservative candidates and causes including Americans for Prosperity, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale. Now the president and CEO of the recently formed Montana-based conservative think tank Frontier Institute, Cotton says the best way to address environmental challenges such as climate change is to “get government out of the way of entrepreneurs and innovators in the marketplace.”
“Entrepreneurs are ready and willing to leverage technology to address a lot of environmental concerns, but regulations [and] government often stand in the way of that,” Cotton said.
By way of example, Cotton referenced environmental regulations around drilling and siting that could stifle Montana’s geothermal energy potential and barriers to nuclear energy development.
“Advanced nuclear energy is definitely an emerging option, [but] it required an act of the Legislature to remove regulatory barriers for nuclear facilities to begin developing in Montana,” Cotton said, referencing House Bill 273, which struck down a 1978 voter-approved law requiring a majority of Montana voters to approve nuclear energy facilities before they can be built in the state.
Montana Petroleum Association Executive Director Alan Olson, a former Republican lawmaker from Roundup, also said redundant and excessive regulations add to the cost of doing business in Montana. Olson said a company applying for an air pollution permit under the Montana Environmental Policy Act is expected to supply information about a long list of items that don’t have an obvious nexus with air pollution. Permittees are expected to list nearby plant species, describe the soil and geology of the site, summarize the project’s impact on employment, and describe recreational opportunities, he said.
“This is for an air permit … you have to go through that with every other permit [you’re required to submit],” he said. “Every time you have to duplicate or triplicate a process, it costs you more money and it just gums up the works.”
Olson also noted that President Joe Biden’s plan to shift the United States to electric vehicles — on Aug. 5 Biden announced an ambitious target calling for half of all new vehicles to be emissions-free by 2030 — will require considerably more electricity on the nation’s energy grids, which will likely require permitting-intensive projects like new transmission lines.
But climate action advocates say a policy that relies solely on streamlining regulations won’t achieve the aggressive reduction in greenhouse gasses necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Anne Hedges, policy director for the Helena-based nonprofit Montana Environmental Information Center, described the idea that regulations stymie entrepreneurship as a platitude that mischaracterizes the nature of the problem. She argued that unregulated free markets are in large part responsible for industrial development that contributes to climate change, and that a hands-off approach is unlikely to slow it.
“The free market is what got us into this problem in the first place. How is [the] free market going to solve it unless you have government trying to steer the free market in the direction of solving the problem?” she said.
Hedges said Montana is far behind its neighbor states — all of which, she pointed out, are politically conservative — in developing clean energy.
“A laissez-faire approach isn’t working. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be 48th in the nation for wind jobs and 47th in the nation for solar jobs,” she said, citing a recently released report on wind energy in Montana prepared by Renewable Northwest.
(Stroyke attributed those low rankings to an unpredictable regulatory environment in Montana and noted that Gianforte this spring signed into law a bill that opens state land to wind energy leasing.)
“We aren’t engaged,” Hedges said. “We’re not trying to bring in any innovators to the state that are going to build, for example, a manufacturing plant for windmills or solar panels. I can’t believe a businessman would be so passive in his approach to trying to create economic development in one of the fastest-growing sectors in America.”
GIANFORTE’S ‘ALL OF THE ABOVE’ APPROACH TO ENERGY
Gianforte said he favors an “all of the above” energy policy that includes renewable energy alongside fossil fuels. He emphasized that the state shouldn’t be “picking winners and losers within the energy market” and said that until battery technology advances, fossil fuels used “in a way that protects the environment” should continue to play a role in ensuring the state has a reliable power supply.
He briefly spoke about projects and proposals he finds “very exciting.” They include a green hydrogen plant that Mitsubishi USA is considering building in Butte, and the Gordon Butte Pumped Hydro Project near Martinsdale, a 400-megawatt project that NorthWestern Energy considered adding to its portfolio before deciding instead to pursue three other projects, including a natural gas plant slated for construction in Laurel.
Gianforte said the advanced nuclear reactors lawmakers are studying ahead of the 2023 legislative session look promising, and that he’s encouraged to see a $1 billion wind project in Miles City moving forward. (The 750-megawatt Clearwater Wind project is expected to be operational next year.) He also mentioned proposals that would capture carbon from the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip and store it underground in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.
“In those scenarios, as I’ve looked at them, you could have a negative carbon footprint from oil extraction if you were able to use carbon from the actual combustion, and that’s exciting,” he said.
But critics say the potential of that kind of carbon sequestration project is overstated, particularly given the costs.
Hedges points to a U.S. Department of Energy Colstrip Power Plant Study that found it would cost $1.3 billion to capture 63% of emissions from Colstrip Units 3 and 4 with an annual maintenance cost of $108 million. Hedges said a 40-year-old plant doesn’t merit that kind of investment.
“Giving a false hope that somehow carbon sequestration at Colstrip is going to prolong the life of the plant — it’s folly,” Hedges said.
Gianforte is a vocal advocate of the fossil fuel industry and has been particularly committed to Colstrip’s continued operation. In May, after signing two bills intended to deter West Coast utility companies from pulling out of Colstrip, Gianforte tweeted: “Affordable power generated in Colstrip helped build Seattle’s big tech economy, but now woke, overzealous regulators in Washington state are punishing the people of Colstrip with their anti-coal agenda.”
Prior to being elected governor, Gianforte represented Montana in the U.S. House. The American Energy Alliance, a free market and oil-and-gas advocacy group, gave Rep. Gianforte a 94% positive rating for his 2019-2020 voting record. According to OpenSecrets.org, petroleum giant Koch Industries gave $15,000 to Gianfore’s political action committee during his 2020 bid for governor. The left-leaning League of Conservation Voters gave Gianforte a 19% ranking on his performance in the House in 2020 based on his position on environmental issues, including climate change and energy policy. The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund contributed $710 to the campaign of Gianforte’s opponent in the gubernatorial race, Mike Cooney, according to records from the Commissioner of Political Practices.
Gianforte, along with all three of Montana’s congressional delegates, has been a big booster for the now-scrapped Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Five months after President Biden pulled the cross-border permit for the pipeline, Canadian company TC Energy nixed the project.
In the interview, Gianforte also spoke about the Trillion Trees Act, a climate change initiative he co-sponsored along with 37 colleagues while serving in the House of Representatives. He discussed the importance of planting trees — he called them “the lungs of the earth” — as a way to address climate change and highlighted his support for the act, which seeks to conserve, restore and grow a trillion trees worldwide by creating new programs, streamlining environmental review and establishing tree-based carbon sequestration targets.
“Doing that, studies show, would sequester about 205 gigatons of carbon and would dramatically mitigate the impact of fossil fuels,” Gianforte said.
To support that finding, Stroyke emailed MTFP a July 2019 article in the magazine Science estimating that an additional 0.9 billion hectares of canopy cover could store 205 gigatonnes of carbon. Eleven months after the paper’s release, the study’s authors issued a clarification emphasizing that tree restoration is not a substitute for greenhouse gas reduction.
The Trillion Trees Act was reintroduced in April by Rep. Bruce Westernman, R-Arkansas, but hasn’t yet had a hearing.
THE ‘UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY’ PRESENTED BY DISASTER
With two active disaster declarations underway — one for drought issued July 1 and another for wildfire on July 14 — Gianforte is in the midst of a crisis response that’s expected to continue for at least two more months, maybe three, according to the latest wildfire forecast.
Wildfires have lent a particular immediacy to the current moment in a way that only disasters can. Between homes lost, firefighters injured, long strings of days with poor air quality, the money spent fighting fires and fire restrictions in place across multiple counties, it’s difficult to find a Montanan who hasn’t been impacted by wildfire this season.
Andrea Zanon, an international consultant who has advised governments and industry groups on climate change resilience and risk mitigation, argues that disasters often serve as tipping points for conversations about climate change due to their immediacy and the impact of loss — of lives, of homes, of money. He’s come to see such crisis points as “unique opportunities” when communities, states and even whole countries start to shift from reactive disaster response to proactive planning to address climate change. Governments can facilitate partnerships with private industry to mobilize a response, he said, but he agrees with members of the Conservative Climate Caucus that government bureaucracy on its own can be too slow and unwieldy to mount the kind of action that’s needed.
Zanon advocates bringing a broad group of stakeholders to the table — government agencies, private industry, activists, investors, politicians and climatologists — and coordinating information across agencies. He said calls for that kind of action will continue to grow.
“When you start affecting health, finances and quality of life, people will take action and politicians will have to follow,” Zanon said. “We are in an incredible moment of crisis, and this crisis should not be wasted.”
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