The age of the Copper Kings gives way to a new generation of “Methane Monarchs”

Just over fifty years ago, Montanans rose up to demand more from our institutions. We drafted a new state constitution with expanded rights to protect our communities and our ability to have a say in government decisions. One reason for this groundswell of democratic energy was a refusal to accept the legacy of the corrupt Copper Kings and their enabling Capitol cronies. These wealthy robber barons destroyed our land and polluted our air with reckless mining and smelting operations that overtook entire cities with dangerous toxins. They owned the legislature and the newspapers, conducting shady business deals outside of public view while printing propaganda in support of their interests.

Photo credit: Drawing of Anaconda Copper Mine Foundry, 1897 (public domain)

The template crafted by these crooked industrialists from the late 1800s stuck around long past their lifetimes. Through most of the 20th century, much of the Montana Legislature’s business was conducted behind closed doors with subservient politicians all too happy to sell their constituents down the river in exchange for perks and payoffs from powerful corporate patrons.

This all changed in 1972 when reforms were made to re-center power in the hands of the people. In response to the numerous environmental disasters like the Libby asbestos site, the Berkeley pit, and the Anaconda Smelter site, we enshrined our “right to a clean and healthful environment” within our new Constitution. That right helped bolster legislation passed a year earlier, the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).

MEPA, requires the state to analyze the potential environmental and health impacts of major development projects. Sometimes called “the people’s law,” MEPA gives us a say in what happens in our communities and requires agencies to open government decisions to public scrutiny. Public comment periods and public hearings are part of processes outlined within MEPA. This law protects the health and safety of our communities, not to mention the tax dollars we all funnel into Montana’s massive Superfund cleanup sites that MEPA has helped prevent since its passage.

But, as you’ve likely heard by now, MEPA is under threat. Radical legislators are trying to exhume the bodies of the Copper Kings while burying our rights in their empty graves. But why?

Well, many of today’s legislators are happily beholden to a new generation of would-be Copper Kings – let’s call them the Methane Monarchs. The most prominent Methane Monarch is NorthWestern Energy, and one of the bills targeting MEPA was crafted explicitly for this monopoly corporation. Read on to learn more.

Holding Montanans’ health hostage

Last week, a handful of representatives were able to suspend House rules in order to introduce a new bill despite all deadlines having passed for new bill introduction. HB 971, sponsored by Rep. Josh Kassmier (R-Fort Benton), was written to give NorthWestern Energy a free pass to pollute our air and degrade our climate as the corporation continues to force a methane-fired power plant onto the community of Laurel.

A week prior to HB 971’s introduction, a Montana circuit court judge ruled that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) failed to properly analyze climate pollution the methane-fired plant would emit before granting its air quality permit. The judge ordered a halt to construction until more thorough analysis could be conducted.

Rather than stand up for the health and safety of Montanans, legislators rushed to the aid of the NorthWestern Methane Monarch with this hastily crafted bill that would ban state agencies from considering climate pollution in environmental analysis. The bill goes on to hold MEPA hostage by exempting most industrial projects from MEPA analysis if, at any point, the Montana Supreme Court rules that climate pollution must be considered in environmental reviews. In other words, it destroys most of our health and safety protections within MEPA if our courts rule that climate protections must also be enforced.

Despite this bill being introduced in half-written form on Friday afternoon with a hearing scheduled on Monday, Northern Plains members showed up in force to testify against this dangerous bill!

Standing our ground, never backing down

Monday’s HB 971 hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee was packed. More than 60 opponents – include many passionate and eloquent Northern Plains members – testified against the bill as compared to 11 proponents, almost all of whom were industry lobbyists.

Northern Plains chair Joanie Kresich took the bill’s supporters to task directly in her testimony:

Our founders feared that corporations might amass more power than the people. That threat is in this room today. Please listen to our voices and honor your promise to serve Montana citizens, the bedrock of our fragile democracy. In spite of scientific agreement to end new fossil fuel burning plants, in spite of the utility brashly building a methane plant on land zoned for agricultural use… a plant that utility customers will be stuck paying for long after it becomes untenable. In spite of a big majority of us clamoring for a clean, affordable energy future. In spite of our youth who know the world they're in, they will inherit, depends on moving away from fossil fuels. This bill is serving the shareholders of the utility.

Joanie giving opponent testimony on HB 971 before the House Natural Resources Committee on Monday.

Despite the outcry from everyday Montanans like Joanie, a majority of the committee made their position clear: we side with industry profits over the health and safety of Montanans. The committee passed HB 971 and sent it forward to the full House.

But the fight is just beginning, and we won’t back down. We have People Power and a proud Montana history of defying corporate corruption on our side. Thank you to everyone who has already called, emailed, or testified against this bill. 

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