Bill to abolish Montana energy policy sparks debate about climate, separation of powers

By: - January 11, 2023 7:16 pm

Rep. Bob Phalen asks questions in committee during the 2023 Montana Legislature. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

The Governor’s Office wants to abolish Montana’s energy policy, and Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, said he wanted one opponent of that idea to explain his use of the phrase “climate change.”

“As I see it, we have four seasons,” Phalen said. “There are changes every — four different times a year. So are you thinking something else?”

At a hearing Wednesday in the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee, Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, presented House Bill 170, which would repeal the state’s energy policy goals.

Gunderson said it follows the governor’s “red tape reduction plan” and eliminates needless language in Montana code. The code notes the policy was first adopted in 1993 and revised last legislative session.

“It’s a bag of air,” Gunderson said. “It’s a policy. It’s a guidance. But it has no teeth. It’s not a law. How do you enforce it? You can’t. There’s nothing there.”

Only a handful of people testified, but the bill sparked questions from legislators, including the one about climate change, another about the separation of powers, and one about the reason for a wholesale repeal rather than selective deletion.

The only proponent to testify was Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s natural resources policy advisor, Michael Freeman, who fielded the question about separation of powers.

Opponent Derf Johnson, with the Montana Environmental Information Center, was the recipient of the question about climate change. In response to whether he was thinking “something else” besides changing seasons, Johnson said, “I am.”

“What I’m talking about is the phenomenon known as anthropomorphic climate change, a phenomenon that has been recorded and accepted by virtually every scientific body in the world, by NASA, and by the top five oil companies in the world and in the United States,” Johnson said.

Increasing emissions mean more climate disruption and higher temperatures across the globe, he said. In fact, he said, scientists say the climate is changing with the same confidence interval as people say cigarettes cause cancer.

“This is hard science,” Johnson said.

Phalen wondered if Johnson meant that in the summer months, it won’t be cooler than 100 degrees, and Johnson said it depends on location. He recommended a look at the Montana Climate Assessment.

The energy policy itself discusses a wide range of goals, such as promoting conservation and a mix of energy sources that “represent the least social, environmental and economic costs and the greatest long-term benefits to Montana citizens.”

The policy also talks about diversifying energy and increasing the use of “Montana’s vast coal reserves in an environmentally sound manner.” It discusses advanced technologies, property rights and transmission lines, and it calls for reducing reliance on foreign oil.

In support of retaining the policy, Johnson said Montana needs an energy policy now more than ever in the face of climate change. Montana has “vast and untapped” capacity for renewable energy, he said, and the policy should be amended to carefully transition toward sustainability.

However, the policy statements run more than two pages long, and Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, wanted to know the reason Gunderson wanted to repeal the entire thing versus select portions.

Gunderson said he put a lot of thought into that decision. Since the policy as a whole is meaningless, he said, he opted to propose to get rid of it altogether — and he joked that he was making things easy on staff.

“I figured I would make the bill drafter’s day by just telling you: Select all. Delete. Save,” he said. “And we’re done.”

Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, wanted to know the reason Montana would choose to not have an energy policy at all. Such statements are common among states as a way to express priorities and plans for the future, she said, but the bill would totally undo it. 

“We won’t have one. I find that strange, and I’m just looking for some feedback,” Sullivan said.

Freeman, with the Governor’s Office, said Montana does have an energy policy. For one thing, he said many other policies end up being energy policies — for example, tax policies or environmental policies.

Plus, he said the governor’s perspective is that Montana has an “all of the above” policy to support affordable and reliable energy. Montana is open to those who want to risk their capital to build energy production here to support the region and the nation, he said.

“We want to see one that is inclusive of all energy sources and not picking winners and losers,” Freeman said.

Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, said Freeman was the only proponent, but the policy in question was the Montana Legislature’s, and “with all due respect,” she said Gianforte would no longer be the governor in 10 years.

“I’m wondering if you could reflect on separation of powers,” Bishop said.

Freeman said the governor was not bringing the legislation — Gunderson was bringing it, and the Governor’s Office was in support of it.

But Bishop also wanted to know if she understood correctly the bill was part of the governor’s “red tape reduction” plan.

Freeman said it’s in line “with the spirit of the red tape reform efforts,” but it’s not an official part of it.

But Bishop asked Gunderson about the separation of powers as well, and he reiterated the fact that he’s the sponsor.

“That is not the governor’s or Mr. Freeman’s bill,” Gunderson said. “It’s mine. And mine alone.”

He acknowledged his reference to the bill as part of the “red tape” effort might have been misleading, but he said it meets those goals. He also said he wanted to speak to the separation of powers.

“Did our current governor have input into our current policy?” Gunderson said. He said the answer would be no. “What better way to give our governor a vision and his input into that vision than to start with a clean slate?

“Why are we going to encumber him with policies another administration put in place?”

The committee did not take action on the bill Wednesday.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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