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Montana PSC hears testimony on proposal to account for costs of climate change

Montana PSC Climate Impact Petition Hearing
Anita Lowe-Taylor
Eva Molina
Jeff Smith
Montana Public Service Commission
Montana Public Service Commission
Amanda Frickle
Posted at 7:00 PM, Apr 08, 2024

HELENA — Last year, young plaintiffs in the Held v. Montana climate lawsuit argued the state had a responsibility to consider climate change as part of the Montana Constitution’s right to a clean and healthful environment. After a judge sided with them, advocates are now asking the state’s utility regulators to change the way they account for climate impacts.

The Montana Public Service Commission’s hearing room in Helena was full Monday, as conservation groups, businesses and others made their case that the PSC should be considering the costs of climate change when making regulatory decisions.

“We are here today to listen to public comment,” said PSC Vice President Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who chaired Monday’s hearing.

The proposal at hand came from 42 petitioners, ranging from groups like the Montana Environmental Information Center and Families for a Livable Climate to businesses like Big Sky Resort and Bridger Bowl Ski Area. They asked the PSC to create a rule to apply a “social cost” of greenhouse gas emissions when they’re considering electric and gas utilities’ rates, resource planning and other decisions.

A link to the petition is available under the “What’s Trending” heading on the PSC website.

Montana PSC Climate Impact Petition Hearing
Eva Molina, representing Gallatin Valley Sunrise, wore a shirt saying "Stop Burning Our Future" while testifying in favor of a proposed rule saying the Public Service Commission should be considering the costs of climate change when making regulatory decisions.

Anne Hedges, MEIC director of policy and legislative affairs, told MTN they have long felt the PSC had a responsibility under the state constitution to take these impacts into account, and after the Held decision, it was the right time to bring this proposal forward for a full hearing.

On Monday, supporters of the proposed rule said climate change is threatening Montana’s environment, human health and outdoor recreation economy. They argued energy from fossil fuels isn’t as reliable or cheap compared to renewable energy as opponents have said, and that Montana’s emissions are enough to make a difference.

“It’s this commission, and not the utilities it regulates, that has the responsibility to advance the public interest and to avoid unjust and unreasonable costs and risks to Montanans – and it cannot defer that obligation for decades,” said Jenny Harbine, an attorney for Earthjustice, representing the petitioners.

Montana PSC Climate Impact Petition Hearing
Dr. Anita Lowe-Taylor, a Helena physician and board member for Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, testified in favor of a proposed rule saying the Public Service Commission should be considering the costs of climate change when making regulatory decisions.

“Every year that we delay curbing emissions, we pay the price in dollars and lives lost,” said Dr. Anita Lowe-Taylor, a Helena physician and board member for Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate. “In this case, it's clear that an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.”

Opponents of the proposed rule included NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities, coal and oil producers, business groups and industrial unions. They said it would amount to a tax on carbon and an extra cost passed on to Montana ratepayers, and that it could threaten working-class jobs in the state. They also argued it goes beyond what the PSC has the authority to implement in its role as an “economic regulator.”

Montana PSC Climate Impact Petition Hearing
Amanda Frickle, political director for Montana AFL-CIO, testified in opposition to a proposed rule saying the Public Service Commission should be considering the costs of climate change when making regulatory decisions.

“This rule is not about climate change, whether it's happening or whether it's disruptive – we are not here today to dispute that science,” said Amanda Frickle, political director for Montana AFL-CIO. “What we are here to dispute is who should pay for the cost of climate change, and on that point, we believe this petition fails to promote a just and equitable solution for Montanans – and in particular our members and working people across the state.”

“If the petitioners would like the PSC to implement a carbon tax on Montana utility customers through ratemaking, they should pursue future legislation which would direct the PSC to do so, rather than attempting to run it through the back door of the administrative rulemaking,” said Tanner Avery, director of the Center for New Frontiers with the Frontier Institute.

Montana PSC Climate Impact Petition Hearing
The Montana Public Service Commission’s hearing room in Helena was full Monday, as conservation groups, businesses and others made their case that the PSC should be considering the costs of climate change when making regulatory decisions.

The commission will continue taking written public comment on this proposal through the end of business on Friday. You can submit comments in person or by mail to the PSC offices, by email to pschelp@mt.gov or on the PSC’s REDDI online system.

After the comment period closes, commissioners will have to go through all the comments they've received before deciding whether to move forward with formal rulemaking. There's no indication yet on when that decision could be made.

If formal rulemaking does go forward, commissioners say there will be more opportunities for the public to weigh in.