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Montana officials disagree over how to address climate change

From the State of Change series

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Montana’s average annual temperature has jumped 2 to 3 degrees since 1950 and is expected to continue to rise, reducing annual snowfall, increasing the frequency of droughts and exacerbating wildfires, according to the Montana Climate Assessment.

To limit these changes, this summer, Gov. Steve Bullock joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of states dedicated to fulfilling the Paris agreement, and launched the Montana Climate Solutions Council, which is crafting policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changing climate.

Bullock spearheaded these initiatives partially out of concern that state lawmakers made limited progress on climate change during the most recent legislative session, said Patrick Holmes, the governor’s natural resource policy advisor.

The 2019 Legislature’s minimal progress on climate change is not unusual, Bozeman lawmakers say. There are widely divergent views on how the Legislature should address the issue. The Solutions Caucus — a group of Democrats and moderate Republicans — has been unable to find common ground on climate change as it has on other issues, including the renewal of Medicaid expansion and the financing of some state infrastructure projects.

Bullock, a Democrat, outlined expansive goals for the Montana Climate Solutions Council in a July executive order, making it among the state’s most significant and visible efforts on climate change in recent years.

The Montana Climate Solutions Council is tasked with finding ways to make the state’s electric sector net carbon neutral by 2035 and for the entire state to be net carbon neutral by an unspecified date. Bullock has said he thinks net carbon neutrality is possible by 2040, but council members will first need to understand the technological and economic resources necessary to reach the goal before setting a deadline, Holmes said.

To help inform government policy, the council will update the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, a report on how climate change impacts the state’s waters, forests and agricultural industry. The council will likely examine how climate change affects other sectors, such as tourism.

Council members plan to collaborate with the Montana University System to research and develop new technologies that could facilitate the transition to clean energy, help the state adapt to the changing climate and train the state’s workforce for the new economy.

The council will also partner with state agencies to incorporate climate change initiatives into their long-term planning documents.

Sara Rinfret, an associate professor at the University of Montana who focuses on environmental policy and state and federal government, said that without federal action on climate change, states are taking charge. In addition to Montana, a handful of other states have had councils that developed policy recommendations.

“This is a chance for Montana to have a place at the table and for Montanans to shape our future,” she said. “This allows Montana to lead the charge for rural western states, providing solutions that could serve as examples and that could be adopted on a national scale to help us tackle this global problem.”

However, Anne Hedges, deputy director and lead lobbyist for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the goals in the executive order are insignificant. Net carbon neutrality — which means the state can offset its carbon emissions with carbon removal processes like carbon sequestration — won’t limit the effects of climate change.

Instead, she said Montana needs to focus on creating a carbon-free economy, which entails investing in renewable energy sources and storage, increasing energy efficiency, transitioning the state’s economy and supporting workers in carbon-based industries.

To carry out his July executive order, Bullock appointed about 30 people to the Montana Climate Solutions Council. They come from around the state and are affiliated with organizations including Montana State University, NorthWestern Energy, the Montana Chamber of Commerce and the Montana Petroleum Association.

The council met for the first time in August. Holmes and Shaun McGrath, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, led the meeting and explained that the council would break into subcommittees to explore specific topics such as identifying gaps in the state’s climate science and preparing for the shift away from coal.

“The council is really a way for us as a state to bring together state agencies and other groups with broad and diverse interests to think about climate change holistically,” McGrath said. “This is an opportunity to do climate change planning in a way that makes sense for Montana.”

Since the August meeting, the council’s subcommittees — one on strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, one on adapting to the changing climate and one on developing technology and transitioning to a greener economy — have each met.

Tom Armstrong, a council member from Bozeman and president of the Madison River Group, said he’s been impressed by the number of different aspects of climate change that the council is exploring and by how dedicated council members have been to tackling these complex topics.

“It’s early, but we’re getting there,” he said last week. “We’re finally organized, and we’re moving forward.”

The council is on a tight timeline. In January, it will begin accepting public comments on a draft plan outlining how the state will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changing climate. The draft will go to state agencies in the spring for review. A final plan will be published in June.

Armstrong said he is confident the council will meet these deadlines and will provide clear direction for the state on what it can do now and what it can do in the future to address climate change.

The council will dissolve in August 2020 once it has completed a plan that identifies actions the governor should take and priorities for the state budget, state agencies and the next legislative session.

Bullock will leave office shortly after the council publishes its report and before the next legislative session. Holmes said this doesn’t mean the council’s plans and policy ideas will be irrelevant. Instead, council members’ work will set the stage for the next governor who will need to know what initiatives the state has in place and what Montanans think can and should be done.

“These recommendations need to outlive this administration and need to be looking forward in a way that will have traction in the future,” he said.

However, Hedges said because Bullock is leaving office, it’s unlikely the council’s ideas will come to fruition. Instead, she said the council is likely a political move to give Bullock, who is running for president, credibility on the campaign trail.

Before creating the Montana Climate Solutions Council, Bullock led some climate change initiatives but has wavered on other controversial environmental issues.

In 2016, he released the “Blueprint for Montana’s Energy Future,” which outlined plans for investing in renewable energy, incentivizing carbon sequestration projects and limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants. He has also worked to increase drought resiliency through the Governor’s Drought & Water Supply Advisory Council.

At the same time, he has said he could support the Keystone XL Pipeline “if it’s done right,” according to the Associated Press. He also became the first governor in the United States to stop working toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan when the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the plan in February 2012.

“The executive branch hasn’t done much when it comes to climate change,” Hedges said.

If Bullock wanted to make meaningful progress on climate change, she said he could begin implementing the policies outlined in the state’s climate action plan, which former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his Montana Climate Change Advisory Committee published in 2007, but that hasn’t been implemented.

Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, has led climate change initiatives in the Legislature for the last 13 years. But he’s also critical of the Montana Climate Solutions Council and Bullock’s track record on climate change.

Without lawmakers on the council, he says it will be difficult to find people to carry bills that come out of its work, limiting the likelihood of its success.

He pointed out that when state lawmakers do bring up climate change, they receive little support from the governor’s office. During the 2019 session, he and a few other senators introduced several bills to address climate change, but the governor’s office didn’t testify in support of any of them.

“To be fair, there is only so much the governor can do, but I think he could have done more,” Phillips said. “I think climate change is a tough issue for Montana governors and lawmakers because Montanans aren’t all that fired up about it. Montanans get really fired up about Colstrip but not about the other important areas for addressing climate change.”

From Phillips’ perspective, the main reason for inaction at the state level is that Republicans, who are the majority in the House and the Senate, have been unwilling to even discuss the issue.

“Good leaders can see around a corner, what’s coming … For all of my time in the Legislature, my colleagues on the Republican side have failed to see around corners,” he said. “The Republicans in Montana have not wanted to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole, and as a result, I believe their service to our great state has been seriously compromised.”

Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, is among those Phillips is talking about. As Senate president for the 2019 session, Sales set the chamber’s agenda.

Sales doesn’t think the government can or should do anything to address climate change, especially because he said the climate has been changing throughout human history and the warming occurring today isn’t solely human-caused.

Sales, who has represented part of Gallatin County in the House and Senate for 16 years, said generally, the government should have a small role. He sees a need for some regulation — such as ensuring clean water and air — but cautioned against the government crafting too many rules because they can hamstring business, which he said has happened to the coal industry as a result of overly stringent pollution standards. Elected officials should instead focus on ensuring a free market economy.

“The government should create an atmosphere or level playing field where all these sources of energy can compete, and the best one that supplies the cheapest cost of energy and does the least amount of damage to the environment would prevail,” Sales said.

Unlike Phillips, Sales said the government is rightfully focused on Colstrip. Going forward, he said, Montana will need coal as well as renewable energy because coal provides reliable power when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining and because it’s an important source of revenue for the state.

He was disappointed the Legislature didn’t address the imminent closure of two of the four units at the power plant during the 2019 session. Sales, who is running for secretary of state, hopes lawmakers readdress Colstrip during the 2021 legislative session.

Rep. Chris Pope, D-Bozeman, focused on clean energy, said instead of focusing on preserving Colstrip, Montana needs to find a way to manage its vast coal resources as they continue to lose value and to invest in renewable energy.

“The Legislature in Montana is currently at the back of the train in terms of providing leadership on how we can transition to a greener economy,” he said. “We need to provide incentives and eliminate barriers to the energy transition … If we don’t take action, we lose our opportunity to make this transition Montana-style.”

To begin tackling climate change, lawmakers from both parties must first have an honest conversation about which laws would be most effective in facilitating the state’s economic transition. He said he recognizes this suggestion might seem simple or naïve, but he believes lawmakers are capable of this discussion.

“We need to — and can — get on our horse and ride,” he said. “We’ve used all the time we have. We need to act today.”

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Perrin Stein can be reached at 406-582-2648 or at Follow her on Twitter @PerrinStein.

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