Energy Bills Cruising Through Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A slew of bills aimed at speeding development projects advanced in the Legislature Tuesday, with only one getting shot down in the House.

The House advanced two of three bills largely backed by industry and opposed by environmentalists. The state Senate advanced two measures of its own that are aimed at aiding energy and other projects.

One of the Senate measures would exempt economic stimulus building projects from the state’s main set of environmental laws.

Supporters said Montana’s environmental permitting system and restrictions are too onerous, while opponents argued that blame was unfairly being placed on laws that allow citizens to raise concerns on projects that affect them.

Backers of the changes, usually a coalition of most of a chamber’s Republican members along with at least some Democrats, said the measures will spur development in the state and create jobs.

“The fact is companies will not come to Montana to stay in court for five years,” said Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, in support of House Bill 483.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, sponsored all three House bills.

He said HB483, endorsed on a 71-28 vote, would tighten up the timeline for permit appeals. He fought back several attempts from Democrats to change the proposal.

But Rep. Art Noonan, D-Butte, said Jones’ bill was a carefully crafted compromise. He said opponents were blowing it out of proportion, while supporters were polarizing the debate by wrongly believing that environmental laws are holding back Montana.

“I implore people to take a closer look at this legislation,” Noonan said. “It is the perfect example of compromise.”

House Bill 529, backed by a 78-22 margin, would make it easier for wind farms to build on state land without going through extra environmental assessments.

But House Bill 566, which sought to make it easier for companies and regulators to change an environmental impact statement amid court challenges, failed on a deadlocked 50-50 vote.

Two measures creating new exemptions under the Montana Environmental Policy Act were also endorsed Tuesday by the Republican-controlled Senate. One would allow air quality permits to be issued without preparation of an environmental impact statement.

Senate Bill 440, introduced by Sen. Kelly Gebhardt, was supported with a 26-24 vote. it was largely supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, with a few exceptions.

“I think this would help us promote industry in this state and we’re sorely hurting for jobs,” said the Republican from Roundup.

Another measure, Senate Bill 481, establishes an exception for shovel-ready projects funded by stimulus dollars. Under the bill, those projects also would not have to undergo an environmental review. That bill was endorsed in a 29-21 vote.

Opponents said the measures dismantle important protections for public appeal.

“This act works and it works in a way that you can only appreciate if you live across the street from an area that’s going to be developed into a gravel pit,” said Sen. David Wanzenried, D-Missoula.

All of the successful bills are expected to gain final endorsement Tuesday before being shipped off to the opposite chamber for further review.

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