Montana regulators have been touring the state in recent weeks to hear from the public about the state’s cornerstone environmental law, the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).
The hearing came as the state announced it would appeal a court ruling this summer that required regulators to consider climate change when reviewing projects for environmental impact.
Yellowstone Public Radio’s Kayla Desroches and Montana Public Radio’s Elise Julin join us to explain the debate surrounding the current and future of environmental policy in Montana.
Kayla Desroches: Youth-led climate change litigation Held vs. Montana was a hot topic in all three listening sessions. Ellis, you’ve covered his bill to change MEPA and the Held v. Montana case during his 2023 session. How does that tie into these listening sessions?
Ellis Yulin: Accordingly, the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) is a public process by which the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and other state agencies review the potential environmental impacts of development projects proposed on federal lands. And the public can weigh in on what they find. Congress changed MEPA in the 2023 session to exclude consideration of climate change. However, the judge in Held blocked these bills. She also found that under MEPA regulations, DEQ can deny permits to fossil fuel projects, but has not done so in the past. And now the states, including DEQ, are appealing that decision to the Supreme Court while we are holding these hearings. Kayla, around the same time regulators were hearing the first public comment period in Billing, state agencies were still signing on to this complaint. Tell me a little bit about what your first listening session was like when you were in the room.
Kayla Desroches: So DEQ said it is seeking solution-based feedback on greenhouse gases, MEPA implementation, improvements and more, and about 20 people spoke in Billings. The majority pay close attention to environmental issues, express concern about climate change, want DEQ to consider climate change impacts and greenhouse gases when considering projects, and many v. Montana and the decision in that case. Ellis, what about you? This week, you attended listening sessions in Helena and Missoula two nights in a row. Could you tell me about what you heard there?
Ellis Yulin: Yes, certainly. Both sessions had a really large number of participants. There were nearly 100 people at the venue, and each of them had 30-40 comments. Kayla, As we saw in Billings, the overwhelming majority of those comments were people asking DEQ to uphold the judge’s ruling and better consider the effects of climate change. Across both sessions, he had fewer than 10 people disagree with this, and they were all fossil fuel or mining representatives. Officials from the Montana Petroleum Association and the Coal Council participated, both of which have a financial interest in MEPA’s outcomes.
Kayla Desroches: How does the regulator say it will handle public feedback during the MEPA comment period?
Ellis Yulin: When I asked DEQ director Chris Dorrington about that during a listening session this week, he said he wasn’t entirely sure. He hopes the hearing session will result in the formation of some sort of task force.
Chris Dorrington: These are very diverse input sets, so even for those who really want to implement climate change analysis right away, the scope is wide. So I think we need to take a step back and look at that and maybe get involved in some kind of workgroup. I think some people are hesitant because they think work groups will slow them down. I think that’s what we’re focused on and I think that’s an important next step.
Ellis Yulin: At this time, it is unclear what the composition of the task force will be, what stakeholder groups will participate, and what the task force’s final outcome will be. Public comment is being accepted until Dec. 1, and it remains to be seen what that will look like. It’s important to note that the DEQ doesn’t legislate, so they can’t actually change his MEPA, and everyone is a little confused as to why a listening session like this would take place. I think. Whatever changes people want to make to MEPA, whatever changes they want to see made to DEQ, they can’t actually be made until the law is changed, and only Congress can do that. have the authority to do so. It feels like a bit of Groundhog Day in the room for these listening sessions. Many of the people commenting here came to the Capitol to voice their opposition to the MEPA changes bill that lawmakers passed in the first place. Now, of course, a judge has blocked those bills, but DEQ is appealing that decision. So we’re stuck in a bit of a stalemate until the Supreme Court decides on the appeal or lawmakers reconvene for the 2025 session.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality will hold a final listening session remotely on Nov. 1.