HELENA — The Montana House on Friday overwhelmingly endorsed what’s become this session’s major bill to revise a key Montana environmental law, as supporters said the changes will clear the way for more natural-resource development in the state.
“What we’re going to see in the state of Montana is more jobs, more people put to work, more families being able to educate their children, more people with a living wage,” said House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R-Billings.
The House voted 76-24 for Senate Bill 233, which revises the Montana Environmental Policy Act, the law that requires the state to analyze the environmental impacts of state actions, such as issuing permits for mines and other natural-resource projects.
A key change in SB233 says that if a court decides the MEPA review of a project is flawed, the court cannot stop the project from going forward. The court could only send the review back to the state to be corrected.
Rep. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, said this and other changes in the bill effectively gut MEPA.
“You can’t (block) a permit if the EIS (environmental impact statement) has to be done all over again,” he said. “If the EIS is flawed, how can the permit be anything but flawed?”
While revamping MEPA is a major goal of the Republican majority at the 2011 Legislature, SB233 is sponsored by a Democrat, Sen. Jim Keane of Butte.
Earlier this week, a House committee chose to send Keane’s bill to the floor and then later voted to kill the session’s other big MEPA-revision bill, Senate Bill 317, sponsored by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby.
However, the committee also created an unusual link between the two bills, amending SB233 to say that if its provision on court challenges is declared unconstitutional, language from the Vincent bill would be substituted.
Vincent’s language doesn’t place an outright ban on a court decision blocking a project, but does create standards that would make it more difficult to block a project if the MEPA review is found to be flawed.
Vincent said Friday that he would have preferred that his bill advance, but that the amendments take care of his biggest concern about SB233.
“Having (my language) in there as a backup gives me the ability to vote for the bill,” he said. “I think my bill focused more on improving the (MEPA) process than SB233, but you don’t always get everything that you want in the legislative process.”
Keane said late Friday that he wants to review the amendments placed on his bill before deciding whether to support it, when it returns to the Senate next week for a possible final vote.
Keane, who has tried to pass similar bills in the past three legislative sessions, said he’s hopeful that this one will succeed and make it harder for legal challenges to slow down or halt permitted natural resource projects.
“It’s not going to get us jobs tomorrow, but it creates a totally new environment for creating jobs in many areas,” he said.
If SB233 clears the Legislature, which looks likely, it will go to Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his signature or veto. Schweitzer has given no indication whether he’ll sign the bill.
In addition to preventing a judge from blocking a permitted project, even if the MEPA review is flawed, SB233 also narrows the scope of environmental reviews, such as saying that impacts outside Montana cannot be considered.
McGillvray on Friday pointed to this element as another key part of the bill.
“I frankly don’t care if (a coal export project) creates carbon emissions because somebody burns some coal in China,” he said. “These frivolous ideas of how it might affect something in China or the Pacific Rim are ridiculous.”
Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, said passing SB233 would be “one of the best steps forward we’ve made in years.”
“These people want to put their Carhartts on and go to work,” he said. “They want their kids to go to work. This bill is intended to get the jobs out of court and dig some dirt. Time after time, we end up in court, instead of end up in the machines, with the welding rod in your hands, or whatever. ... This will put people to work.”