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Good News From Montana's Role In Changing Carbon Pollution

Kudos to Governor Bullock and the MT DEQ for their work on carbon pollution at power plants.

The data on the changing climate keeps getting worse. Global temperatures for the month of August were the highest ever recorded. And while this year we largely escaped the worst impacts of the changing climate here in Montana, multi-year trends here are still alarming. In our state, trends show that temperatures are up, mountain snowpack is down, runoff of the mountain snowpack is coming earlier, glaciers are receding and disappearing, forest fires are becoming more numerous and intense, and the list goes on and on.

Real costs are associated with these trends. Montana’s outdoor economy is hurt every time a large forest fire ignites and every time a river is closed to fishing due to high water temperatures and low flows. Montana’s agricultural economy takes a hit every time a major storm destroys crops and Montana’s families’ budgets get a little bit tighter with each trip to the ER for heart attacks and kids’ wildfire smoke-induced asthma attacks. Just about every study on the subject shows that these types of externalized costs related to climate change far exceed the costs that would be associated with reducing carbon pollution to acceptable levels.

All this being said, there is some good news lately. After decades of inaction on climate change, signs of movement at the federal and state levels are appearing. At the federal level, this summer the Environmental Protection Agency released a proposal concerning carbon pollution at power plants, the leading carbon emitting sector in the nation’s economy. The proposal, dubbed the Clean Power Plan, calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions at power plants nationwide by the year 2030. Montana’s goal would be to reduce emissions by 21 percent by then. Under the proposal, each state would be given the ability to craft its own plan on how to achieve the carbon pollution reductions called for in the plan.

But the good news doesn’t end with the federal government. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality recently released a report entitled, “Options for Montana’s Energy Future: Creating jobs and delivering clean air in a changing economy”. The purpose of this report is to create a state-wide discussion about various ways the state can reduce our carbon emissions at power plants to levels that will be required under the federal Clean Power Plan. It lays out five different scenarios. None of the scenarios entails closing existing power plants. Instead, they involve various degrees of emphasis on certain factors:

1. Improving industrial efficiencies at the power plants,

2. Increasing the build out of industrial renewable energy, and

3. Investing in energy efficiency programs in Montana homes and businesses.

Although none of the scenarios outlined in the report are perfect, Governor Bullock and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality should be applauded for taking this issue head on. Ignoring the obvious costs associated with the changing climate, many governors and state governments around the country are intent on only obstruction, name calling, threatening frivolous lawsuits, and fomenting unrealistic fears about the process. Faced with one of the gravest threats of our generation, these politicians are choosing to grandstand and score political points instead of seriously addressing the issue.

Thankfully, Governor Bullock and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality are choosing a different approach. They are working to find a “made in Montana” approach to solving the problem. Already, they have held three listening sessions around the state to hear from Montanans about their report and the five scenarios in it.

At these hearings, they have heard from many different perspectives. It is obvious that not all Montanans agree on the issue. Some say we should join forces with the obstructionist states to try to kill the federal Clean Power Plan, and others say we should close the all the coal-fired power plants down next year. Somewhere in between there is a sweet spot that will allow the state to hit their carbon pollution reduction requirements under the Clean Power Plan in a way that is best for Montana’s economy, well-being, and way of life.

I’m pretty sure that science and cost-benefit analysis will ultimately show the way to go should emphasize strong investments in energy efficiency in Montana homes and businesses combined with the installation of a lot of renewable energy (both at the industrial scale and distributed on people’s homes and businesses). We definitely shouldn’t be building any new fossil-fuel fired power plants, and we should at least be considering scheduling retirement of some old, dirty, high-cost coal-fired power plants and hitting a carbon reduction target greater than the one mandated by the EPA.

But for now, I’m pleased that Montanans are at least having a public discussion. Climate change is an incredibly important issue. The important thing is that we cut carbon emissions in a big way soon. There are different ways to get to those cuts. I hope the state finds the best way for Montana. The recent steps by Governor Bullock and the State Department of Environmental Quality are encouraging.

This is Dave Dittloff, Regional Representative for the National Wildlife Federation. Have a good night.

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