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UPDATED: Petitioners: Public Service Commission has ‘most consequential role’ on future of Montana

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UPDATED: Petitioners: Public Service Commission has ‘most consequential role’ on future of Montana

Feb 28, 2024 | 12:00 pm ET
By Keila Szpaller
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40 orgs, businesses, to Public Service Commission: Consider climate in utility regulation
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Electricity pylons (Photo by Getty Images).

Kimber Brown’s largest bill besides rent has always been their power bill, and unexpectedly becoming a one-income household crippled them.

“I was quickly living out of my car with overdue NorthWestern (Energy) bills to pay,” Brown said.

Brown isn’t as financially stressed anymore, but one thing has stayed the same.

“I’m so scared to open the envelope and look at my bill every month,” they said.“The economic and environmental anxiety and instability that my generation is going through is unacceptable.”

Brown, a member of Gallatin Valley Sunrise, shared their experience Wednesday at a news conference about a petition more than 40 organizations and businesses signed and submitted to the Montana Public Service Commission the same day.

The Public Service Commission regulates monopoly utilities, including NorthWestern. The petition asks commissioners to adopt a new rule that requires consideration of the adverse climate impacts of greenhouse gas emissions in gas and electric utility regulation.

The petitioners said the PSC makes decisions that can promote or discourage investments in fossil fuel infrastructure, and as such, the agency has “the most consequential role of any decision-making body in the state in determining Montana’s impact on the climate.”

Taking climate into consideration will benefit power customers seeing inordinate increases in their bills, the petitioners said; it will help children experiencing detrimental health effects of bad air; and it will support businesses, plus the Montana economy and recreation culture at large in the face of climate change.

At the video news conference, Frank Szollosi, with the Montana Wildlife Federation, said Public Service Commissioners and all elected officials need to “recognize the intergenerational justice component” of public policy on climate change and their moral imperative to act for future generations.

Szollosi also spelled out some of the economic and recreational hits Montana will experience by 2050 if it does nothing to address climate change, citing a 2023 report by Power Consulting Incorporated:

  • Montana will see a 25% reduction in big game hunting. It will see a 30% loss in angling activity, with nearly 1,900 jobs lost and $60 million in annual labor earnings lost. “There’s going to be declines in wildlife watching and sightseeing, which is going to cost another 1,600 jobs and $44 million,” Szollosi said.
  • The state will see 19% fewer ski days in Montana by 2050, or 33 fewer days for downhill skiing, a prediction that’s already starting to come to pass with early closures and ski hills that aren’t operating at capacity, he said.

In Montana, outdoor recreation represents “a huge chunk” of gross domestic product, he said; only Hawaii has a larger percentage. Citing the report by Power Consulting, Szollosi said the status quo will mean, all told, 8,800 outdoor recreation jobs lost in Montana and $263 million gone in annual labor earnings.

The petition said Montana courts have twice found the state has an obligation to consider climate change in its decision making, including in the historic order in Held v. Montana this summer from the youth climate trial.

In that order, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley said a limitation to the Montana Environmental Policy Act that prohibits the state from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts in energy and mining permits is unconstitutional.

This month, the State of Montana filed an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court, and the case is pending.

However, the petition to the PSC, filed by Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center, cites Seeley’s order in the case with 16 young plaintiffs.

“The science is clear that there are catastrophic harms to the natural environment of Montana and plaintiffs and future generations of the state due to anthropogenic climate change,” said the petition, quoting the judge.

“The degradation to Montana’s environment, and the resulting harm to Plaintiffs, will worsen if the State continues ignoring [greenhouse gas] emissions and climate change.”

The Montana Legislature exempted the Public Service Commission from the Montana Environmental Policy Act, but petitioners to the PSC argue regulators nonetheless have a clear “constitutional obligation to maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment for present and future generations.”

At the news conference hosted by the Montana Environmental Information Center, Hiram Towle of Bridger Bowl Ski Area said his “product” is a healthy winter sport, but the raw materials in his industry are all affected by climate change. Last year, Bridger counted 377,000 “skier visits,” he said, a large portion from families.

Towle pointed to the trees of the Bridger Range that protect slopes but are stressed from drought and beetle damage as affected by climate; buildings and equipment damaged by wildfires at other ski hills; and snow, “in dangerously short supply,” and snowmaking from a limited water supply.

“Consideration of climate change is a significant part of our planning strategy and economic outlook, just as it is for businesses globally,” Towle said. “Bridger is currently working on a master development plan, and all future capital projects must be viewed through the foggy lens of a Bridger Range with less snow.”

Bridger Bowl, Montana Wildlife Federation, and Gallatin Valley Sunrise are among the petitioners, along with a variety of other businesses and organizations, including Families for a Livable Climate, Montana Environmental Information Center, Associated Students of Montana State University, Blackfoot River Brewery, Bridgercare and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Dr. Allison Young, with petitioner the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said children in Montana and worldwide are disproportionately affected by changes in climate “due to their unique vulnerabilities.”

For example, they breathe faster, which increases their exposure to dangerous air pollutants, she said. Citing the World Health Organization, she said 88% of disease attributable to climate change affects children under the age of 5 globally.

“We think this petition is common sense,” Young said. “In making decisions about the future of our state, our policymakers should be obligated to consider the impact of our actions on the next generation, our children.”

The petition includes a request for a public hearing, which lawyer Jenny Harbine with Earthjustice said petitioners are optimistic the Public Service Commission will grant.

Wednesday afternoon, Public Service Commission chief legal counsel Lucas Hamiltion said the commission had just received the filing and had not yet reviewed it: “As a result, we have no comment on it at this time.”

At the news conference, however, the MEIC’s Nick Fitzmaurice said the Public Service Commission has the potential to mitigate climate change, and doing so would bring its operations in line with the Montana Constitution’s protection of a clean and healthful environment.

Brown, with Gallatin Valley Sunrise, said they moved to Montana 10 years ago, and the Bridger foothills were on fire, and soon after that, flooding threatened homes.

“I could not believe how close we all are to losing everything due to extreme climate events,” Brown said.

They are worried about the future, but also said the order in the Held case made them feel hopeful the government would take responsibility, and the PSC also has the power to act. Petitioners noted regulators in other states do consider climate in their decisions.

“If we embrace this rule and take action, maybe I will still be able to swim in the Yellowstone River in the summertime,” Brown said. “Maybe I will still be able to … spend time cross country skiing with friends … in the wintertime.”

The petition kicks off a 60-day window where the PSC must decide whether to accept the petition and begin the rulemaking process or formally deny the request in writing.

Petitioners

Families for a Livable Climate
Gallatin Valley Sunrise
Montana Environmental Information Center
Associated Students of Montana State University
Big Sky Resort
Blackfoot River Brewery
Bozeman Community Food Co-op
Bridger Bowl Ski Area
Bridgercare
Campus Climate Coalition
Citizens for Clean Energy, Inc.
Climate Smart Glacier Country
Climate Smart Missoula
Earthworks
Environmental Defense Fund
Forward Montana
Helena Hunters and Anglers
Helena Interfaith Climate Advocates
Lander Busse, Plaintiff, Held v. State of Montana
Moms Clean Air Force
Montana Associated Students
Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics
Montana Conservation Elders
Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate
Montana Interfaith Power and Light
Montana Public Interest Research Group
Montana Renewable Energy Association
Montana Science Center
Montana Wildlife Federation
Natural Resources Defense Council
Northern Plains Resource Council
NW Energy Coalition
Park County Environmental Council
Parks’ Fly Shop
Renewable Northwest
Save Wild Trout
Sierra Club Montana Chapter
Stonetree Climbing Gym
Ten Mile Creek Brewery
350 Montana
Upper Missouri Waterkeeper
Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council