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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

After landmark climate case, state regulators hear feedback on environmental impact reviews

Montana regulators toured the state over the last few weeks to hear feedback from the public on the state’s cornerstone environmental law, the Montana Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA.

The listening sessions came as the state announced it’s appealing a court ruling from this summer that found that regulators had to consider climate change when reviewing projects for their environmental impact.

Yellowstone Public Radio’s Kayla Desroches and Montana Public Radio’s Ellis Juhlin join us to explain the debate over the present and future of environmental policy in Montana.

Kayla Desroches: The youth led climate case Held vs. Montana has been a big talking point in all three listening sessions. Ellis, you've covered legislation that changed MEPA during the 2023 session and the Held vs. Montana trial. How does that all tie into these listening sessions?

Ellis Juhlin: So, the Montana Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA, is the public process by which the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and other state agencies review the potential environmental impacts of any proposed development project on state land. And then the public can weigh in on what they find. The Legislature changed MEPA in the 2023 session to exclude the consideration of climate change. But in the Held trial, the judge put a block on those bills. She also found that DEQ, under the provisions of MEPA, could deny permits for fossil fuel projects, but hasn't done so in the past. And now the state, which includes DEQ, is appealing that ruling to the Supreme Court while we're having these listening sessions going on. Kayla, state agencies were still signing on to this appeal around the same time that regulators were in Billings listening to the first public comment period. Talk a little bit about what that first listening session was like from being in the room.

Kayla Desroches: So the DEQ says it wants solutions-based feedback on things like greenhouse gases, implementation of MEPA, improvements and around two dozen people spoke in Billings. A vast majority closely watch environmental issues and voiced concern about climate change and they requested that the DEQ factor in climate change impacts and greenhouse gases when reviewing projects and many referenced Held vs. Montana and the decision in that case. What about you, Ellis? You attended the Helena and Missoula listening sessions, which were back to back over two nights this week. Can you tell us about what you heard there?

Ellis Juhlin: Yeah, definitely. Both of those sessions were really well attended. There were close to 100 people in the room and 30 to 40 people gave comments at each one. Like you saw in Billings, Kayla, the overwhelming majority of that comment was people asking DEQ to uphold the judge's ruling and to better consider the impacts of climate change. There were fewer than 10 people across both sessions with dissenting opinions to this and those were all representatives from fossil fuel or mining industries. We had people from the Montana Petroleum Association and the Coal Council, all of which have a financial interest in the outcomes of MEPA.

Kayla Desroches: What do regulators say they will do with the public feedback during the MEPA comment period?

Ellis Juhlin: I asked the DEQ's director, Chris Dorrington, about that at one of the listening sessions this week and he said he's not entirely sure. He'd like to see something like a task force be formed out of this listening sessions.

Chris Dorrington: Because they're such a diverse set of inputs, even for those who really would like to see us immediately implement a climate change analysis, there's a wide range. So for us, I think we need to step back, take a look at that and then probably engage in a workgroup of some sort. I know that there's a hesitation among some that the workgroup slows us down. I think it focuses us and I think that's an important next step.

Ellis Juhlin: It's unclear right now what the composition of that task force would look like, what stakeholder groups would be represented on it and what the kind of eventual outcome of a task force would be. Public comment is open until December 1, so it remains to be seen what that looks like. I think it's important to note that DEQ doesn't make laws, so they can't actually change MEPA, and everyone is a little bit confused as to why these listening sessions are happening. Whatever changes people want made to MEPA or changes they want to see DEQ make, those can't really be done until the law is changed and only the legislature has the power to do that. It feels a little bit like Groundhog Day in the room for these listening sessions. Many of the people giving comment here came to the Capitol and spoke out against the bills that lawmakers passed changing MEPA in the first place. Now, of course, the judge has blocked those bills, but DEQ is appealing that ruling. So, we're in a little bit of a stalemate until the Supreme Court makes a decision on the appeal or until lawmakers reconvene for the 2025 legislative session.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is holding a final listening session remotely on November 1.

Kayla Desroches reports for Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed in the city for college, where she hosted a radio show that featured serialized dramas like the Shadow and Suspense. In her pathway to full employment, she interned at WNYC in New York City and KTOO in Juneau, Alaska. She then spent a few years on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, where she transitioned from reporter to news director before moving to Montana.
Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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