Smith River

The Smith River is shown in this file photo.

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An environmental group has released a poll of likely Montana voters that it thinks shows growing support for renewable energy and significant opposition to the construction of a copper mine near a tributary to the Smith River in central Montana.

The poll from Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund posed questions to about 500 randomly selected Montanans on issues ranging from the seriousness of climate change to how much support voters have for protecting more rivers. The group releases the poll during election years, and often some of the questions are similar, which allows them to track whether public opinion is shifting on certain issues.

Neal Ullman, a program director for Montana Conservation Voters, said that seemed to be the case on questions about the future of energy development in the state, as he sees the popularity of coal slipping and the popularity of renewable sources increasing.

“The numbers are ticking in our direction,” said Ullman.

About two-thirds of the people interviewed for the poll supported the Clean Power Plan, a controversial federal rule that calls for the country to decrease carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

Opponents of the plan argue that it will force coal-fired power plants to close and kill jobs. After the plan was released, Montana’s Republican Attorney General Tim Fox joined several other states in a lawsuit meant to block it. Oral arguments on an appeal in that suit were heard this week in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But supporters of the plan hail it as a major step in the fight against climate change and say that the country should begin shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Ullman said the poll showed more people in the state are coming around to that line of thinking.

Results showed that 77 percent of those polled consider renewable sources to be reliable, and that 74 percent of respondents supported replacing coal plants with renewable energy as they are retired by their owners, which is expected to happen in Montana in the coming decades.

“I think Montanans are ready to start looking at the future,” Ullman said.

Bud Clinch, the executive director of the Montana Coal Council, said he doesn’t put much stock in the results of the poll, which he believes was motivated to advance MCV’s political positions. None of the results surprised him, but he took issue with the way some of the questions were asked.

“It seems to me that it was a poll that was conducted to substantiate the agenda of the Montana League of Conservation Voters,” Clinch said.

The poll included a question about the development of the Black Butte Copper Project in the Smith River drainage, north of White Sulphur Springs. Tintina Resources Inc. has applied to build a copper mine near Sheep Creek, a tributary to the Smith. The Smith River is a prized destination for anglers and floaters.

The company maintains that it doesn’t pose any risk to the Smith River, and that the mine would use cutting-edge technology to prevent any risks. But opponents of the mine — including Montana Conservation Voters — say they don’t trust that the company can mine safely there.

Respondents were asked whether they supported the development of the mine, and 64 percent of them expressed opposition to the project.

“We were really happy that got the kind of opposition that it did,” Ullman said.

Tintina executives took issue with the way the question was asked, saying that the poll ignored the fact that they plan to comply with all environmental laws and prioritize the protection of the Smith River.

“Of course they’re going to get 64 percent opposition to this question the way this is written,” said Nancy Schlepp, a Tintina spokeswoman. “This is a leading question.”

Respondents were still fairly split on the seriousness of climate change, though more respondents than in the past — 29 percent — said it required immediate action. The rest were split evenly between answers supporting some action to remedy climate change and that more research is needed to understand it. Nearly a quarter — 23 percent — said concerns over climate change are “unwarranted.”

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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