HELENA – Senate Republicans are moving forward with their plan to tilt the state’s main environmental law in favor of industry, despite objections from Democrats that the plan undermines key protections for clean air and water.
The Senate endorsed in a 27-23 late afternoon vote a general revision of the Montana Environmental Policy Act after making some changes aimed at reducing the cost to state regulators.
It had already received one favorable vote last month, before GOP leaders sent it back to committee for some tinkering. It now faces one more largely procedural vote before it is sent to a House very receptive to the idea.
The proposal is signature legislation for the new Republican majority that wants to spur development of coal, oil and other natural resource industries. GOP leaders argue the environmental standards remain the same under their proposal, while making it more difficult for people to sue over proposed projects.
“This bill does nothing to change the air or water quality standards in this state,” said Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings. “What this bill is about, is the how and the when and the why of when somebody can sue.”
Opponents led by environmentalists argue the measure complicates state environmental regulations in a way that is very harmful to citizen participation. They also said the erosion of the state’s MEPA law will eventually harm the state’s air and quality standards since it will be hard to oppose bad projects.
“I am afraid that what we have in this bill will cause us to suffer down the road,” said Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman. “In the disguise of trying to encourage economic development we have sacrificed our environmental surroundings to the point where we have a net loss long term.”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has not said how he will respond to the bills. But in the past he has said there is nothing wrong with Montana’s environmental laws, and said he has been able to attract coal and gas and other companies to the state under the current system.
Also Thursday, a Senate panel reviewed a longshot measure to dilute the Montana Constitution’s “clean and healthful environment” provision. It needs support from two-thirds of lawmakers, a very difficult bar to reach.
Another Senate committee Thursday was reviewing a different Republican plan — which had already cleared the House — that declares the state has authority over federal regulation of greenhouse gasses. Critics say the Legislature is overstepping its bounds and ignoring science with the measure.
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