Mine work at Westmoreland’s Rosebud Mine near Colstrip. Credit: Alexis Bonogofsky

The Montana Legislature has passed an 11th-hour bill prohibiting the state from analyzing the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions in its permitting decisions, clearing the bill to head to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk.

House Bill 971 was a late arrival at the Capitol, introduced about six weeks after the transmittal deadline for non-budget bills. Lawmakers suspended their rules to allow for its introduction, citing an April 6 decision by a Montana judge that halted construction of a NorthWestern Energy gas plant in Laurel. The measure has now passed both the House and Senate, largely along party lines.

Proponents say HB 971 pushes back against judicial overreach and aligns with the procedural function of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which guides how state agencies conduct environmental reviews for large projects. Opponents counter that ignoring the impacts of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions will hamstring Montana’s ability to respond to climate change and unwisely tether the state’s energy industry to fossil fuel technology that’s on its way out.

Several pieces of HB 971 were stricken from the measure in the lawmaking process, so it looks different than it did at its first committee hearing two weeks ago. The version that passed the Legislature April 28 prohibits the state from analyzing the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and “corresponding impacts to the climate” — both within and outside the state’s borders — in its permitting decisions. Other sections excluding mining projects and power plants from all review under MEPA were struck by a House amendment to the measure.

As the bill was debated during an April 27 floor session, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, described it as a response to “one of the more atrocious act of judicial activism” he’s seen, a reference to a Billings judge’s revocation of NorthWestern Energy’s gas plant permit on the grounds that the state prepared an inadequate environmental analysis. Other proponents of the measure, including Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, said it will “set the record straight” regarding the proper role of MEPA.

“While MEPA is procedural, it is not voluntary. … Please vote no for our children’s future.”

Sen. Denise Hayman, D-Bozeman

“MEPA is a procedural situation — it is not regulatory,” he told his colleagues in the Senate. “It was never intended to be regulatory.”

Small said the bill will also short-circuit what would otherwise be “an endless loop of litigation” on large projects requiring a permit from a state agency — “just about anything that involves the land.”

Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, countered that HB 971 amounts to a “knee-jerk reaction” that weakens MEPA’s fundamental intent. He urged his colleagues to preserve MEPA’s spirit in his comments drawing from writings penned by MEPA’s Republican sponsor, George Darrow, in 1998: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Sen. Denise Hayman, D-Bozeman said climate change impacts like wildfire, drought and flooding are disrupting the state’s agricultural and outdoor recreation economies. Considering such impacts “is essential to guaranteeing the public’s right to a clean and healthful environment, our right to know, and our right to participate,” she said.

“MEPA is a procedural situation —  it is not regulatory. It was never intended to be regulatory.”

Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby

“While MEPA is procedural, it is not voluntary,” she added. “Please vote no for our children’s future.”

HB 971 has been one of the most commented-upon and controversial environmental proposals coming out of the 68th Legislature. It received nearly 1,000 public comments. About 95% of commenters oppose the measure, according to a Legislative Services tally.

Changes to Montana law codified by HB 971 could play a role in a prominent lawsuit a Helena judge is presiding over, Held vs. Montana. There, 16 Montana youth are asking a judge to shift the state’s energy trajectory by declaring that the government’s failure to measure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will threaten access to a clean and healthful environment, with impacts to their generation as well as future generations. The 10-day hearing for that lawsuit is scheduled to start June 12.

In the meanwhile, construction on the gas plant in Laurel is halted. NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest monopoly utility company, has said it will appeal the ruling by Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael Moses.

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Amanda EggertEnvironmental Reporter

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...