Montana GOP Blames Dems for Dead Carbon Storage Bill

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republicans are lambasting Democrats for rejecting the session’s last remaining carbon storage bill, after a partisan showdown over more than 50 amendments during a committee meeting led to a final deadlocked vote.

Senate Bill 498, sponsored by Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter, sought to build a regulatory framework for storing carbon dioxide underground, in advance of federal rules due out in 2011.

The bill deadlocked on a party line vote Wednesday in the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee. Democrats voted en masse against the measure after some of their amendments for the GOP bill were rejected. Republicans voted in its favor.

“What that would have done is given us a starting point to where we could start working on sequestration for clean coal development,” said Rep. Harry Klock, R-Harlowton, the committee’s vice chair.

Bales’ bill became the last surviving carbon sequestration bill after Rep. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, agreed to table his own legislation and back the GOP version. But Phillips said during Wednesday’s meeting that unless Republicans supported key amendments he would be forced to vote against the measure.

“This kind of bill, if it could have been amended properly, would have provided Montanans an opportunity to be at the front of the line” in carbon storage, Phillips told his fellow committee members Wednesday.

Storing carbon dioxide thousands of feet below ground is considered a potential method for stemming increasing levels of the greenhouse gas in the earth’s atmosphere.

Many scientists argue that the carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, is causing climate change that could result in rising temperatures, droughts and sea level rise.

During a news conference Thursday, Republicans accused the Democrats who voted against the bill of caving to radical environmentalists and holding back clean coal development in Montana.

“A few Democrats have caved in and defied the will of the people,” said Republican Minority Floor Leader Scott Mendenhall of Clancy.

Mendenhall said Democrats were listening to radical environmental lobbyists for the Northern Plains Resource Council and the Montana Environmental Information Center, which helped draft some of the amendments that led to Wednesday’s conflict.

In response, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Republicans squandered an opportunity to support clean coal in Montana by pitching a bill that privileged the interests of oil and gas companies.

“We will never know whether it was conspiracy, whether there was no intent of getting this bill passed this session, or if it was incompetence,” said Schweitzer, who called for passage of carbon sequestration legislation in his State of the State address.

Democrats sponsored two carbon storage bills this session, the one offered by Phillips and another sponsored by Sen. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, which was tabled by a Republican-controlled Senate committee.

Republicans on the House committee supported some of the Democrats’ proposed changes for SB 498, including giving the Board of Land Commissioners final authority to decide if a storage company can transfer liability for its sequestration site to the state. They also backed extending the minimum period of time that must pass before a storage company can transfer its liability from 20 years to 30 years. And they voted in favor of requiring water-well monitoring within one mile of the sequestration site.

They also met the governor’s demand that the GOP bill define who owns the underground spaces where carbon dioxide could be stored, giving it to surface landowners.

“I thought we made a good faith effort to get this bill out and be on the forefront of clean coal energy production,” said Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork.

Democrats, though, insist the bill had major flaws and favored industry interests.

“To me this represents the same thing as deregulation,” said Committee Chairman Art Noonan, D-Butte. “The industry decided they wanted to get in front of a national trend.”

Noonan also said the liability protections for industry that were built into Bales’ bill were more likely to spur the use of carbon dioxide for the purposes of enhanced oil and gas recovery, than actual carbon storage projects.

“What we were likely to see is not a dome filled, what we were likely to see is a lot of oil and gas recovery,” Noonan said.

Committee debate ended on Bales’ bill after Republicans rejected three amendments some of the Democrats considered critical. One would have set stricter liability standards by requiring “clear and convincing evidence” that no problems, such as gas leakage, exist with a carbon storage site before taxpayers can take over responsibility.

North Dakota, Wyoming and other states have been working on legislation defining how to regulate carbon storage, but the technique has not been demonstrated on a large scale anywhere in the United States.