A fight is brewing in Montana over legislation that, if passed, would compel the state’s attorney general wide to investigate environmental groups and give them wide latitude to do so. The result could be a protracted legal battle and have a chilling effect on free speech around the transition away from coal and toward renewables.
The fight centers around the town of Colstrip and its state senator. Colstrip, as the name might make you guess, has one big business: coal. The town began as a waypoint to supply railroads with coal, and in the 1970s, the open pit mines that ring it began feeding Colstrip power plant. Satellite images show the scale of the industry, which dwarfs the town’s small grid of streets.
But the heyday of coal has come and gone in the U.S. Coal plants have retired at a rapid clip since the late 2000s, largely due to the glut of cheap natural gas unearthed by fracking and the falling cost of renewable energy. Two of the Colstrip power plant’s boilers were shut down last year as the result of an air pollution lawsuit. According to the Billings Gazette, four of the utilities that buy the power are Washington and Oregon, both states that will ban coal power in the coming years. That puts the future of the plant and its two remaining boilers on very shaky financial ground.
Colstrip’s state senator and amazing-mustache-haver, Duane Ankney, has introduced a slew of bills to help prop up the plant. That includes SB 379, a bill that would help the plant’s fifth owner, NorthWestern Energy, recoup costs from ratepayers if the plant even if it closed. The Gazette reports that those costs would be a staggering $483 million over the next 21 years, based on a Montana Public Service Commission analysis. The bill got tabled in the state House, though. State Rep. Denise Hayman said of “almost 4,000 emails” about the bill were not supportive. This went down on Wednesday.
Shortly thereafter, Sen. Ankney requested an amendment to a routine spending bill that called for the state attorney general to “investigate the electioneering and related political and lobbying activities of environmental organizations operating in Montana.” Among the actions it would compel the attorney general to do are investigate the “composition” of groups, including their member rolls, examine their funders and the “interplay” between them and the groups, and to look at any protest activities taken since 2011.
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“He wants to harass those groups like ours who have been fighting coal,” Anne Hedges, the director of policy and legislative affairs at the Montana Environmental Information Center, said. “And he wants the attorney general’s investigation to go back to 2011, which is around the time that we started really ramping up our work against Colstrip and the associated coal mines. It was really a direct retaliation for his failure over the course of his political career to accomplish saving a coal plant, despite the odds and despite the market, he blames us.”
Hedges said her organization is sounding the alarm with other environmental groups in Montana, including smaller ones who lack the resources should the attorney general come after them, and larger, more conservative-leaning groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which could still find themselves in the crosshairs. Montana has a Republican governor and supermajorities in both houses of the legislature and Hedges said it was a “long shot” that the amendment gets stripped.
Ankney is a former coal miner and his biggest funder in the last election was the Montana Coal Council, which kicked him $500, according to campaign finance records. A small sum compared to the cost of running a race at the federal level or in more populous parts of the state. He also ran unopposed, and the donation is 9% of his total haul in 2018.
Both coal bailouts and assaults on free speech have become increasingly common in Republican-controlled legislatures around the country as well as the federal government. Numerous Republicans have raced to criminalize protest in recent years, specifically protests around fossil fuel projects. A coal bailout in Ohio ended in scandal after the FBI indicted Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder for taking $60 million in bribes from a major utility. (Householder and an associate later pleaded guilty.) Meanwhile, wild-eyed conspiracies linking green groups and Russia were a central fixation in Rep. Lamar Smith’s final term in Congress.
When I asked Hedges if Russia was funding her organization, she laughed. A lot.
“Let me tell you, we’re not that well funded,” she said once the laughing subsided, noting that the group fills out its 990 forms (which are available on its website).
These efforts are a clear attempt to chill free speech to prop up fossil fuel interests. But lashing out at local nonprofits isn’t going to change the calculus of more stringent regulations and a market increasingly tipping toward clean energy. Fossil fuels’ days are numbered both due to economics and an increasing share of the world ready to get rid of them to protect the climate. The efforts of Ankney and others to delay will only make the collapse of the industry that much harder on the very people they claim they’re trying to protect. Without funds and plans for a just transition, workers will be left screwed out of their livelihoods. And the vagaries of capitalism mean the companies that pack up shop or go under almost certainly won’t be there to support them.
In a bleak twist, the coal bailout got snuck into another bill and could get a floor vote soon, meaning ratepayers could get saddled with wasteful coal debt and environmental groups could face harassment by the state. In addition, Hedges sent over two dozen bills either propping up fossil fuels or undercutting renewables. Twelve had passed by her count while a handful of others were still working their way through the legislature. The suite would shackle Montana to the energies of the past rather than the ones that will power the future.
Hedges said her group has tried to pitch the idea of a supported transition but hasn’t had any luck. Now, if the amendment and bill are signed into law, environmental groups will be forced to waste time battling it in court instead of trying to find common ground with Colstrip and other places. The risk of the bill extends well beyond any headaches it creates for Hedges.
“What will these guys stop at? Nothing, really nothing,” she said. “It’s investigating their opposition, harassment of their opposition through the law. That’s should be chilling to everybody. It may not be you this time. But next time, if they don’t like you, guess what? You’re next on the list.”
Update, 4/23/21, 5:20 p.m.: This post has been updated to include the reanimation of the coal bailout bill as well as details on other pro-fossil fuel legislation in the works.