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Montana news about the environment, natural resources, wildlife, climate change and more.

Debate over Laurel gas plant goes before Montana Supreme Court

The doors to the Montana Supreme Court chambers.
Shaylee Ragar

The Montana Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a case that asks if state regulators should consider climate change in their decisions. The case centers on the permitting of a methane-fired power plant.

Plaintiffs Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Information Center say state regulators failed to evaluate the environmental consequences of the new Northwestern Energy power plant.

“To most Montanans who clearly understand their fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment, the Laurel Methane Gas Plant is a significant project,” said Jenny Harbine, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Harbine told the court this was a matter of environmental justice. She said the constant noise and industrial lighting from the plant, and its 18 combustion engines, will harm residents of Laurel who are already impacted by industrial projects in the area.

Shannon Heim, general counsel for Northwestern Energy, said environmental justice isn’t part of Montana law. She told the court the plant is relatively small compared to power plants in the nation, and is necessary for having a reliable energy grid.

“The Laurel Generating Station is designed to fill in when the intermittent renewables in our system solar, wind, hydropower either cannot or do not perform,” Heim said.

This case has gone to the Supreme Court after a district court revoked the air quality permit the Department of Environmental Quality issued Northwestern last spring. The lower court said the agency failed to take into account the plant's greenhouse gas emissions, along with lighting, noise and climate impacts.

That decision ignited a fierce debate in Montana’s Republican-controlled legislature where lawmakers suspended the rules to introduce legislation after normal deadlines excluding greenhouse gas emissions from consideration.

One thing all sides agree on is that another case could decide this one’s fate. That’s the constitutional climate suit Held v Montana. The Supreme Court’s eventual decision in that case could determine if Montana’s Environmental Policy Act includes the consideration of climate change. The Held case decision will also affect the fate of legislation passed in the 2023 session.

“If the courts could somehow issue its decision at the same time as Held, or tie the two cases together so that DEQ knows whether or not to apply HB 971, it would be very helpful to the agency,” said Jeremiah Langston, a lawyer for DEQ.

Although the appeal process is underway for the Held case, the Supreme Court has not yet heard arguments in the Held v Montana case. in the appeal. It is up to the court to schedule arguments.

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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