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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Climate Change At The 2015 Montana Legislature

Montana Capitol
Eric Whitney

The start of the 2015 Legislative session is still seven weeks away, but a group of Democratic lawmakers, scientists, and activists is already working to frame a possible legislative debate on climate change. 

Among those who spoke at a climate change-focused news conference on Thursday was Dave Chadwick, Executive Director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. He says even without the EPA pressuring the state to cut its carbon emissions by 20 percent in 15 years, slowing or reversing climate change would still be a priority, to save the state’s hunting and fishing industry.

“Every year people report things are different. Animals aren’t where they used to be. Rivers don’t have water like they used to," Chadwick said. "We know this problem is happening. And that’s confirmed by good science. And that’s what we need to be basing our policy decisions on.”

Helena City Commissioner Katherine Haque-Hausrath says Montana’s cities can only do so much, and the state needs to step up to the plate.

“All the things that we do at the local level are dwarfed by the gains that we could make with a comprehensive statewide and national program," Haque-Hausrath said.

But all the positive talk from advocates doesn’t change the fact that tough choices need to be made. Montana’s major source of carbon dioxide is the Colstrip coal-fired power plant. Chadwick, Haque-Hausrath and the others say reducing Montana’s carbon footprint can be accomplished without shutting down any of Colstrip's four generators. They say a mix of conservation measures and renewable energy alternatives would meet the EPA carbon mandate while keeping the jobs and economic benefit of the Colstrip plant.

David Hoffman isn’t buying it.

"For people to tout renewable as the answer to this and then still say that it’s not going to impact Colstrip is probably naïve or just flat wrong,” says Hoffman, the external affairs director for PPL Montana, which owns the Colstrip plant. The way Hoffman describes it, his employer is getting a raw deal, having to compete against alternative energy providers subsidized by federal grants and tax breaks.

“Renewables in the northwest have already impacted Colstrip in terms of causing us to back down on generation because of the glut of this taxpayer-funded wind energy in the northwest," Hoffman said. 

Critics of Hoffman’s argument say that coal-fired power plants don’t have to pay the environmental costs that result from burning fossil fuels, and that amounts to a subsidy. Northwestern Energy, Montana’s largest utility, already gets most of its power from renewable sources, mostly hydroelectric dams. But clean energy advocates say Northwestern customers with their own solar and wind generators should be allowed to put more of their excess power onto Northwestern’s grid, adding more clean electricity to the mix. Northwestern spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch says this “net-metering” system is already broken, and expanding it would make the problem worse, by letting alternative energy providers benefit from an infrastructure they aren’t paying to support:

“The net metered customer is still connected to our system," Rapkoch said. "In fact they need our grid to make their system work. And we believe that they should be paying fairly for those services that are provided through the grid just like any other customer.”

So Northwestern Energy and PPL Montana would both look very closely, and probably raise objections, to any solutions that could adversely affect their business. Clean energy supporters will likely face an uphill battle getting any initiative through the coming Montana Legislature. 

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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