Building for the Future by Reforming the Permitting Process

By Beacon Staff

We believe it’s important for Montana to move forward in the responsible development of our natural resources. To do that, we need to drastically improve our appeal process after a permit has been granted. In its current form, the never-ending appeal process sends the strong message that Montana is closed for business. That’s not what we want for our state.

The stark reality of this flaw in the permitting process was brought home last week when Southern Montana Electric decided to abandon its plans to build a coal-fired power plant in Great Falls. Instead, it has decided to build a natural gas plant, which will produce 20 percent more expensive electricity and employ 300 fewer people.

This setback stems directly from Montana’s appeal process after a permit has been granted. The time has come to make a positive change to build for a better future.

This problem affects all of Montana, not just the Great Falls area. The plant’s territory covers the co-ops from Canada down to Wyoming. Those co-op customers will be paying higher rates for electricity because this proposed coal plant was literally appealed and sued into submission.

We, the Republican leaders in the House and Senate, are focusing on positive solutions for this problem. Four legislators from both side of the aisle have bills which will bring about fairness and accountability to the environmental permitting process.

Sen. Keith Bales of Otter has a bill that requires the Board of Environmental Review (BER) to decide appeals within 120 days. It also gives the permit-holder the option to file with the BER or to the court for appeals. In addition, it limits appeals to issues brought up during the comment period.

Sen. Greg Hinkle, Thompson Falls, has a bill that would require people filing an appeal of a permitted development project first post a bond to prevent serial frivolous appeals.

Sen. Jim Keane, Butte, is introducing a bill that revises the environmental impact statements in various ways.

Rep. Lew Jones, Conrad, expects that he’ll have three bills which will be drafted this week.

It’s time to actively support good, responsible projects that have gone through necessary environmental reviews. It’s time to ensure that we have a timely, predictable and responsible permitting process, and bring a halt to the endless appeals process with the Board of Environmental Review.

The Highwood generating plant is an example of a project devastated by our existing appeals process. Investors have spent nearly $40 million and several years developing that project. And now they’ve thrown in the towel out of frustration.

In the next couple of years, we have valuable projects coming to Montana that will be facing similar obstacles if we do not do something to put fair sideboards on the permitting and regulation process.

The Many Stars Coal to Liquids Plant could bring in upwards of 4,000 temporary and 1,000 permanent jobs to the Crow Reservation while developing the rich coal reserves in the Powder River Basin. This past week, Ambre Energy announced plans to build a plant that could employ 600 temporary employees and 60 permanent employees in addition to using almost 5 million tons of Montana coal.

We cannot let our permitting and appeals process derail these important projects just as they have so many others in the past. We need to reassure industry that when Montana says we are serious about energy development, we actually support that statement with our actions.

Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, is the Senate majority leader and Rep. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, is the House minority leader.

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