Construction on Laurel power station will continue while appeals head to Supreme Court

Legislature changed the law, which changed the legal calculus for opposing the gas-fired plant

By: - June 12, 2023 4:45 pm

An aerial view of a natural gas fired electrical generation station being built near the Yellowstone River in Laurel, Montana. (Photo by Ed Saunders, used with permission).

Changes made by the 2023 Legislature may have been enough to restart construction on a natural gas-fired power plant in Laurel as a district court judge ruled that state law had changed enough to reverse a stay even as the case sits on the state’s Supreme Court docket.

Previously, Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael G. Moses ruled that a power generation station operated by NorthWestern Energy could not proceed because the state’s Department of Environmental Quality had failed to consider proper lighting and not taken a hard look at the environmental impacts posed by the plant, which had the potential to produce the equivalent emissions of more than 167,000 vehicles running non-stop.

However, a case at the Montana Supreme Court and a law enacted by the 2023 Legislature dramatically changed the legal landscape, and caused Moses to vacate his previous order that stopped work at the plant, situated near the Yellowstone River.

In court documents filed by attorneys for NorthWestern, the company argued that a pause in construction due to the legal wrangling could result in a $50 million in extra cost in a power generation plant that is already expected to be in the ballpark of $250 million. That additional cost would have to be absorbed by NorthWestern or public utility ratepayers. In addition, attorneys told the court that 130 of the 246 workers were temporarily laid off.

A separate, unrelated court case filed in Flathead County, but ultimately decided by the Montana Supreme Court,  ruled that the remedies in the Montana Environmental Protection Act do not allow district courts to halt projects in this manner.

Furthermore, after Moses’ ruling on the effects of tons and tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 971, which was signed on May 10, and effective immediately. That bill prohibited the DEQ from considering greenhouse gas emissions in the state when issuing air-quality permits.

Both the appeal from NorthWestern’s attorneys and the order from Moses question whether the new law is constitutional, given the constitution’s provision giving residents the right to a “clean and healthful environment.” But since that question wasn’t explicitly included as part of the existing legal challenge to the plant, that question is reserved “for another court on another day,” according to the energy company’s counsel.

“Although only two months have passed since this court issued its order vacating the air quality permit for the Laurel Gas Station, much changed in the legal landscape,” Moses wrote in part of his order vacating the previous decision. “Whether (NorthWestern and the DEQ) will have to analyze the impact of LGS’s carbon dioxide emissions within the boundaries of Montana will depend upon the changing legal landscape.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.