Montana’s GOP Undermines Climate Science: A Bold Move to the Past

In the face of escalating climate change challenges, Montana’s Republican lawmakers have erected a roadblock. They’ve passed legislation that explicitly prohibits state agencies from considering climate change when issuing permits for large projects, such as coal mines and power plants. Just last week, Gov. Greg Gianforte inked his signature on the bill, setting a grim precedent as the nation’s most fervently anti-climate law.

House Bill 971 takes a firm stance. It bars state regulators, including the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, from assessing the environmental impact of greenhouse gas emissions and other climate-related factors when reviewing large-scale projects. This move builds upon a previous state law that obstructs the state from considering “actual or potential impacts that are regional, national, or global in nature” during these reviews.

This hostile approach toward climate change mitigation comes at an interesting time. A group of 16 young Montanans is currently suing the state government for violating their right to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting pro-fossil fuel policies. This right is inscribed in Montana’s constitution, and the hearing for this case is due to commence next month.

The argument from the proponents of the new law, such as its sponsor, Rep. Josh Kassmier, is that this legislation is needed to reinstate policy-setting power to state lawmakers. This follows a court decision in April to revoke a permit for a proposed natural gas power plant, even after state regulators had given it the green light.

Nevertheless, environmental advocates have ardently opposed this move. They’re accusing Montana’s Republican-led Legislature of wilful ignorance towards the pressing issue of climate change. This seems particularly odd given that most Montanans understand and wish to tackle human-induced climate change. A 2022 poll by Colorado College found that almost 60% of Montanans support transitioning to renewable energy to combat climate change. Public sentiment towards House Bill 971 was overwhelmingly negative, with 95% of more than 1,000 comments submitted by local residents opposing the bill.

Montana’s climate has been substantially altered over the past century, as per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The early melting of snowpacks, increased heatwave frequency, and a heightened risk of wildfires are just some of the worrying signs. But despite these looming threats, Montana’s Republicans have been steadfast in defending the interests of coal, oil, and gas companies in the state. Several GOP state lawmakers, such as Montana Rep. Gary Parry and US Rep. Ryan Zinke, have deep connections to the fossil fuel industry.

The newly signed law is more than just another policy decision; it could lay the groundwork for a new level of anti-climate policy. It brings to mind North Carolina’s 2012 law that barred government agencies from using anything but historical data on sea level rise when formulating development policies. However, Montana’s law goes a step further, covering all climate-related impacts without any time restriction.

Other red states have also introduced or passed legislation that curtails government consideration of climate change, but mainly in the realms of public education and investing. For instance, Texas has passed a law prohibiting the state from conducting business with firms that have divested fossil fuel companies due to climate concerns.

However, the real concern is that Montana’s law could create a collision course with federal policy. The EPA has recently proposed a rule that requires coal-fired and some natural gas power plants to capture 90% of their carbon emissions by 2038. Gianforte’s spokesperson has stated that state agencies will consider greenhouse gas emissions if federal law requires it or if Congress amends the Clean Air Act to include carbon dioxide as a regulated pollutant. However, Congress did precisely this last year.

In the face of such hostile policies, the urgency of climate change action grows more significant. The question remains whether the tenacity of environmental advocates, public sentiment, and mounting evidence of climate change can eventually turn the tide. Until then, it seems the Montana GOP is opting for fossil fuels over its citizens’ future.