Efforts to Limit Energy Permit Appeals Progress Through Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The first of a battery of energy permitting bills backed by the GOP as key to the development of the state’s natural resources is poised to finish its passage through the Legislature Monday.

House Bill 483, sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, would set some new restrictions on how energy projects’ permits are appealed.

“This moves Montana forward. It sends a message that we will deal with you fairly and the public will still have their rights in the permitting process,” said Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, who carried the measure in the Senate.

After sailing through the House, the bill was endorsed by the Senate on a 28-20 vote Saturday. If it passes one more reading, it will be sent to Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The bill, one of several sponsored by Jones focusing on energy, would in some cases require a permit challenger to post a bond equal to the costs of delay to the project developer. It would also let developers choose whether the appeal is heard by a District Court or the state Board of Environmental Review. And it limits the issues that can be raised during an appeal hearing, as well as the timeframe for its conclusion.

“What it’s asking us to do is to essentially give up our rights under the Constitution when it comes to interfering with the review of these projects,” said Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman.

The bill nearly split the Republican-controlled Senate on party lines, with only three lawmakers voting opposite their party. They were Sens. John Brueggeman, R-Polson, Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, and Jim Keane, D-Butte.

Republicans identified streamlining the permitting process as a goal early in the session, and their efforts gained traction when a developer recently scrapped plans for a coal-fired power plant near Great Falls, citing delays due to appeals and financing problems.

Opponents, though, have argued that easing the state’s permit requirements and restraining citizen appeals will jeopardize Montanans’ right to live in a clean and healthy environment.

“I don’t understand why all of the sudden that the value of our citizens’ voices are devalued,” said Sen. Kim Gillan, D-Billings, during Saturday’s floor debate.

At least five other measures that seek to speed the permitting process continue to make their way through the Legislature, despite strong opposition from environmentalists.

– Another Jones bill, House Bill 529, would limit the scope of environmental reviews required for some energy projects on state lands. It has passed the House, and will go to the Senate Monday.

– Two other measures, Senate Bills 440 and 481, that create new exemptions under the Montana Environmental Policy Act, are also alive in the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee. One would allow air quality permits to be issued without preparation of an environmental impact statement by the state. The other establishes exceptions for shovel-ready projects funded by stimulus dollars.

– On the Democratic side, Keane is sponsoring Senate Bills 360 and 417, which have both passed the Senate and are now in House committee. SB 360 would allow existing transmission lines to be upgraded and extended within certain limits without requiring a new permit. SB 417 prohibits courts from reviewing state agencies’ decisions, and changes statutory language to prevent environmental reviews from being used as the reason to deny a permit.