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Why Montana is emerging as a must-watch climate battleground

A Northwestern Energy natural gas-fired power plant is under construction near Laurel, Mont., in 2016. (Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette/AP)
6 min
correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that a federal court is reviewing a youth lawsuit against Montana. It is being considered in a state court. The article has been corrected.

Montana is the land of big skies, glaciers and fly-fishing — where natural beauty is so important, the state imposed a constitutional right to a clean environment. But it also boasts the country’s largest recoverable coal reserves, which are critical to its economy, making it one of the most intense climate battlegrounds in the country.

This month, Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed a law barring the state from calculating the climate impacts of major projects. At the same time, a state judge has ruled that a first-of-its-kind lawsuit testing whether Montana’s constitution requires the state to combat climate change will go to trial next month.

They are signs that America’s larger climate conflict — the shift away from fossil fuels and the boom in renewable energy — has made its way to Montana. Its coal industry is already facing head winds, as Washington and Oregon will soon cut off imports of carbon-intensive power from their neighbor.

Montana, with deep attachments to both the environment and fossil fuels, remains torn.

“We’re a weird state,” said Anne Hedges, co-director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, an environmental advocacy group. “We have this right, but we also have more coal than anybody else in the Lower 48.”

Climate activism meets opposition in Helena

Climate issues come up in each of the Montana legislature’s lawmaking sessions, which stretch over 90 days every other year. The state has long had a strong environmental lobby — its constitution was rewritten during the heart of the environmental movement, ratified in 1972.

But Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls) said he thinks climate issues have recently taken on a different tenor, as they dominated the final weeks of the most recent session, which ended May 10.

The debate stemmed from a judge’s decision early last month to revoke a permit for a natural gas power plant that NorthWestern Energy, a utility company that operates in Montana, planned to build near Billings. Environmental groups demanded the retraction, stressing a need for further scrutiny of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, and a Yellowstone County judge ruled in their favor.

The state legislature’s Republican supermajority, concerned about power reliability, moved swiftly. Within weeks, it sent legislation to Gianforte that makes such climate impact considerations illegal unless the federal government requires it. The governor signed it immediately, with spokeswoman Kaitlin Price saying the measure serves just to reestablish “longstanding, bipartisan” policy and practice when it comes to environmental analysis.

Fitzpatrick said the law was needed to combat what he described as inflexible ideology on the part of climate activists.

“I like to go to Helena to work on solutions, to find compromise,” he said. “You can never have any compromise on this topic.”

For its part, the utility company has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 but says power generation like the proposed gas plant is necessary because its growing and abundant wind and solar energy resources don’t produce electricity all the time. Spokeswoman Jo Dee Black noted that when extreme cold descended on Montana in late December, the utility had to import expensive power to meet power demand.

But to environmentalists, the lawmakers’ approach amounts to ignoring what is causing the biggest harms to Montana’s natural beauty, melting its glaciers and fouling its air with wildfire smoke.

That is especially true for some of the youngest Montanans, who are helping to lead the push to move on from the state’s fossil fuel-based past.

“We can see the impacts immediately,” said Grace Gibson-Snyder, a 19-year-old from Missoula.

Lawsuit tests Montana’s environmental commitments

Disappointed with action by the legislature to block climate efforts, environmentalists say they plan to take the battle to the courts. Hedges said she expects it could eventually be up to a judge to decide whether the climate-analysis ban signed by Gianforte can stand, though no challenges have yet been filed.

Meanwhile, a first-of-its-kind legal challenge could have a broader impact.

Gibson-Snyder and 15 other Montana youths filed a lawsuit in March 2020 alleging that, with its actions supporting the fossil fuel industry, the state government is violating their constitutional right to a clean environment. Gibson-Snyder, an avid backpacker, said she has seen a marked degradation of the environment in her lifetime — just as she sees coal trains rolling through her hometown.

“Smoke chokes Missoula every summer,” she said. “It matters acutely for everyone’s well-being.”

Montana officials have sought to dismiss or delay the lawsuit, especially given the recent legislative action. Besides the new law banning climate assessments, lawmakers this year repealed a law that was amended as recently as 2011 to encourage fossil fuel industry development, as well as investment in wind turbines and other clean energy.

But a judge ruled May 12 that the case will proceed, scheduling the two-week bench trial to begin June 12.

Our Children’s Trust, a climate-focused nonprofit law firm, is representing the youths. Attorney Phil Gregory said the case will draw on evidence and expert testimony that shows Montanans “have a substantial role in causing the climate crisis, and will be dramatically affected by the climate crisis unless something is done.”

The state’s defense is expected to downplay climate risks, including through the testimony of Judith Curry, a former Georgia Tech professor who is a well-known climate contrarian. Other climate scientists say Curry has underestimated how much damage global warming will cause and how much human activity has to do with it.

Many Montana Republicans, like Fitzpatrick — who is not involved in the litigation — say they don’t believe what happens in their state has any effect on global temperatures. “It’s just ideology,” he said of the surge of activism.

Montana’s climate impacts at issue

But Gibson-Snyder said the ripple effects of the state’s fossil fuel industry show why it matters what happens in Montana.

Energy statistics show Montana holds 30 percent of U.S. recoverable coal reserves and produces the fourth-most coal among U.S. states from six mines. Nearly half of its coal is exported to other states, while one-fourth goes to western Canada and often onto Asia.

Meanwhile, Montana’s average temperatures have risen nearly 2.5 degrees since the beginning of the 20th century, according to federal data, more than twice the global average.

It’s also why Gibson-Snyder hopes the lawsuit will push the state to transition away from fossil fuel-based energy and industries.

State leaders including Gianforte say fossil fuels will still be needed for years to come to keep the lights on. Price, the Gianforte spokeswoman, said the governor believes that “we must focus on American innovation and ingenuity, not costly, expansive government mandates, to address our changing climate.”

Advocates like Winona Bateman, executive director of Families for a Livable Climate, will be rooting the youths on. She said she worries about their future ability to take advantage of the natural beauty that Montanans love.

“How much of the summer will they be able to enjoy?” she wondered. “Will they be able to ski? Will they be able to hunt and fish?”

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