Power transmission lines in Colstrip. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

Shortly after House Bill 170, a measure titled “repeal state energy policy,” passed along party lines last month, Gov. Greg Gianforte signed it into law. With Gianforte’s signature, a 30-year-old piece of legislative guidance outlining a vision for the state’s energy future will disappear from Montana Code Annotated.

So, what was in the State Energy Policy, and why did lawmakers pass it in 1993? 

Broadly speaking, MCA 90-4-1001 sought to balance existing and emerging energy resources and technologies — everything from coal, wind power, and biomass to green hydrogen and synthetic petroleum products — with environmental protections. It also established loose guidelines for using transmission lines to move all those electrons around the state and emphasized the Legislature’s desire to keep electricity affordable for Montanans.

On one hand, 90-4-1001 established that it is the state’s policy to “expand exploration and technological innovation, including using carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery in declining oil fields to increase output.” On the other hand, it also says it’s the state’s policy to “promote energy efficiency, conservation, production and consumption of a reliable and efficient mix of energy sources that represent the least social, environmental, and economic costs and the greatest long-term benefits to Montana citizens.”

There’s a lot in the policy, in other words, and some of the pieces don’t fit together neatly. 

Critics of HB 170, which was sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, questioned the need to repeal the entirety of 90-4-1001 rather than strike or amend specific pieces of the code. Gunderson replied that it’s hard to predict exactly what forms of technology should be reflected in the policy since the state’s energy landscape is apt to change. He also said the policy is advisory-only, and therefore unenforceable. “It has no teeth,” he told the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee. The real nuts-and-bolts underpinnings of energy policy are reflected in specific laws and agency rules, he said — things like air and water quality permitting, tax structures and land use.

Democrats, meanwhile, are left to mourn the loss of a legislatively established energy policy. When HB 170 was heard by the Energy Committee on Jan. 9, Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, quipped, “I’m not looking for the governor’s policy — I’m looking for ours.” Lawmakers had amended it as recently as 2021, she added.

When HB 170 passed out of the Legislature on March 15, it did so on strictly partisan lines: not a single GOP lawmaker voted against it and not a single Democrat voted for it. 

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Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...