Climate Task Force Advice Stuck in Draft Form

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – After three years and much rhetoric, dozens of climate change recommendations coming out of a panel established by Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer continue to languish.

The Climate Change Advisory Commission gave lawmakers 54 recommendations back in 2007 — but they have failed to inspire any bills that can both muster votes and significantly slash greenhouse gas emissions in Montana.

Legislators looked at the recommendations between sessions and whittled the list down.

But environmentalists say the nine bills a legislative committee is bringing to the full Legislature are piecemeal, and will not make the carbon dioxide cuts they seek.

“Their recommendations were so incredibly and disappointingly modest,” said Anne Hedges, with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “They truly are picking away at the edges and we need more than that in this day and age.”

Since the council could not agree on whether or not humans impact the climate, it had to focus on legislation relating to conservation, said Democratic Sen. David Wanzenried, the council’s chair. The nine bills to emerge from the council are as “milquetoast as they could possibly be from a carbon-footprint standpoint,” he said.

Even so, they may not fare well in a closely divided legislature that is confronting declining budget projections, Hedges said.

In fact, at least two of the council’s nine bills already have been tabled. One of them — a bill requiring the Department of Transportation to report on conservation efforts — came with a zero-dollar price tag, but still failed to rally support.

Schweitzer established the climate change commission in 2006, and it set a goal of bringing Montana’s fossil-fuel emissions back down to 1990 levels by 2020.

Many scientists agree that burning fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, likely causes climate change.

Some worry climate change could cause problems in Montana such as drought and higher temperatures, and even hurt tourism and agriculture.

The Climate Change Advisory Commission, a panel that included industry and scientists, had hoped to lower emissions in the state.

“I’m pretty disappointed about our recommendations, which were watered down to get to 54, and now they’re even more watered down,” said Ken Thornton, who served on the climate-change commission’s energy group and runs a solar-energy business in Great Falls.

Stronger measures could still come forward — but they stand little chance in a sharply divided Legislature.

One would establish some efficiency standards for larger utilities. Another would give the Board of Environmental Review authority to adopt vehicle emissions standards.

Passing any of the legislation relating to climate change will be difficult, Hedges said, especially if the state’s financial resources continue to dwindle.

Schweitzer’s administration touts its decision to implement an energy-savings program following recommendations of the task force as proof the work was not wasted.

Richard Opper, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said the “20X10” initiative requires state agencies to reduce their energy consumption 20 percent by 2010. He doesn’t expect the Legislature will do much with the rest of the recommendations.

“Part of what we would really need to do that is some leadership on the part of the federal government,” Opper said.

Others, though, think Schweitzer could do more.

“He’s got the bully pulpit, he was reelected handily,” said Richard Liebert, who represented the environmental group Citizens for Clean Energy. “I still think there are things we could be doing.”