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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Legislators Weigh Lawsuit Over Out Of State Coal Ports

Coal train

Montana legislators are considering giving $1 million to the Montana Department of Justice for a potential lawsuit against states hindering Montana’s coal trains from getting to larger markets. Namely, markets like China.

While House Bill 244 doesn't specify exactly what cases the money would fund, it's about making sure ports in Washington and Oregon are open to coal traffic.

Currently, those ports are under construction, but opposition from environmental groups and local governments is stalling that construction.

This leaves Montana in a bind. Republican Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, home to four coal-fired power plants, is one of the strongest proponents for funding litigation to open the Washington and Oregon ports.

"This is very important to Montana. Our future in the coal markets are in the international market. It’s very important that we have access to those ports on the west coast."

Opponents of the bill, like Republican Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman, aren’t too keen on spending $1 million with so much uncertainty.

“We don’t even know what the litigation would be, who the parties would be, what the issues would be… so until we know all those things I just, I don’t see the value of setting aside a million dollars of taxpayer money to think about it.”

To arguments that this money would be wasted if court cases don’t happen, Jon Bennion of the Montana Department of Justice says all of this money would then flow back into the state coffers.

“This money, as we see it, as restricted for this sole purpose. If it is not used, it will be refunded at the end of the next biennium.”

The bill faces opposition from groups like Greenpeace, the Blue Skies Campaign and Bozeman Climate Allegiance, which have participated in rail rallies to stop coal traffic in Missoula and Helena, largely protesting the negative climate impacts of perpetuating coal use.

Helena resident Mike Lee has another issue with fighting to open the ports. He says if those ports open, it’s going to likely double the yearly rail traffic, meaning longer wait times at the tracks.

“How many hours of idling automobile traffic associate with 1000 and maybe more hours of blocked vehicular traffic at all of Helena’s railroad crossings, not to mention those blocked crossings in other Montana cities.”

Proponents, on the other hand, argue that the state needs to fight for these ports or face looking on as others capitalize on growing coal demand overseas, while Montanans lose jobs.

University of Montana Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, Patrick Barkey says the U.S.’s coal demand is stagnating and could actually drop.

However, if coal can be exported through western ports, Barkey says it will likely find a long-term market as China’s economy and its hunger for coal grow rapidly.

A 2012 report from the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research projected that an expansion of Spring Creek Mine near Decker could create more than 1,400 jobs and bring about $55 million in taxes yearly. Then, there's the Otter Creek strip mine in Southwest Montana, which a separate 2012 report from the bureau estimates could produce more than  4,000 jobs in construction and operations, potentially bringing in  $144 million in tax revenue in its first year.

But that expansion can’t happen unless new west coast ports are finished. Currently, coal trains largely use ports in British Columbia, which are reaching maximum export limits.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Jeff Essmann, says the basis of the potential court case would rest in the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause, where the state can’t inhibit transportation through another state.

However, others argue this has more to do with commerce between nations, and one state can’t just force another state to build a port.

Opponent Anne Hedges of Montana Environmental Information Center doesn't agree with using state funding to fight another state's decisions and says they should focus on working together.

“What this bill really seems to do is try to force economic development through litigation. And to me, that's not how you get economic development.”

Montana is not alone in trying to fund these litigation efforts. Wyoming’s legislature passed a similar bill last year at about half the size of Montana’s $1 million proposal. Its bill contained about $550,000.

The Montana Finance and Claims committee will likely vote on this bill in the next few weeks, deciding whether to pass it off to the full Senate, or kill it where it sits. The bill passed the House 53 to 45 last month.

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