How environmental policy proposals are faring at the Legislature’s halfway mark
Lawmakers have been tangling with laws and rules governing wolves, exempt wells, grizzlies, water quality, electric vehicles, conservation easements, coal mining and more.
By Amanda Eggert MONTANA FREE PRESS
As the 2023 Legislature enters its second half, Montana Free Press is assessing how bills falling under the environmental umbrella — broadly defined — fared during the first 45 days of the session. Here we zero in on proposals to strike, add or amend laws and rules regulating coal mining, solar energy, exempt wells, water quality, net metering, grizzlies, wolves and more.
NATURAL RESOURCES AND WATER
Lawmakers are tangling with water quantity and water quality regulations as they look for ways to encourage residential development and weigh industry proposals to facilitate natural resource extraction against environmental protections. The former has been a focus of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s housing task force, which is co-chaired by Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director Chris Dorrington and Montana Chamber of Commerce President Todd O’Hair. The latter is part of a perennial legislative balancing act.
- ✴️ House Bill 642, a Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, measure seeking to change the Montana code dealing with exempt wells was amended to include a $150 filing fee, thereby kicking it into another category of bills subject to a later transmittal deadline. HB 642 changes formulas regarding “combined appropriations,” which establishes a set of criteria new wells have to meet in order to stay within a legislatively established permitting loophole. HB 642 is supported by developers and real estate industry representatives seeking to increase housing supply and opposed by agricultural interests and senior water rights holders, who are concerned that expanding groundwater withdrawals will reduce water available to other users, particularly in rapidly growing parts of the state. The DNRC, which oversees water rights, also opposes the bill. It’s awaiting executive action in the House Natural Resources Committee.
- ✅ Senate Bill 240, which would exempt subdivisions with fewer than 14 lots and located at least two miles from “high-quality waters” from Montana Environmental Policy Act review, was transmitted to the House and is awaiting a hearing there. It was drafted at the request of DEQ, which argues that the bill will allow the agency to devote its resources to larger, more complicated environmental projects.
- ✅ House Bill 576, a proposal by Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, that would change water quality rules related to coal mining, passed out of the House largely on party lines. It would direct the DEQ to classify coal mining activities impacting ephemeral and intermittent streams as a “nonsignificant activity” subject to less stringent environmental review. It garnered support from mining companies and NorthWestern Energy. Environmental groups and ranchers seeing geological and water impacts from mining oppose it.
- ✅ House Bill 473, a proposal by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, seeking to change the state’s water quality rule for selenium in Lake Koocanusa, a waterway that’s affected by coal mining in Canada, was amended in committee. It now specifies that the state will pursue a rule change only if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decides to toss out the standard for waterborne selenium pollution it adopted two years ago. HB 473 passed out of the House.
One bill draft that got plenty of ink in local and national outlets early in the session is still just a draft. As of March 9, a Gunderson proposal titled “revise Montana constitutional language regarding clean and healthful environment” is still on hold. A referendum proposal that would require the approval of both two-thirds of lawmakers and a majority of voters to go into effect, it’s subject to an April 3 transmittal deadline.
Predator management is emerging as a prominent theme in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee and Senate Fish and Game Committee again this session. The prospect of the federal government removing endangered species protections from Yellowstone-area and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bears has been a focal point of lawmakers’ conversations about predator hunting and trapping.
Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, proposed three measures building on wolf-trapping and black bear-hunting bills he successfully introduced in 2021. This session, lawmakers balked at codifying hunting regulations in statute (as opposed to allowing the governor-appointed Fish and Wildlife Commission to set them). Democratic and Republican lawmakers said such measures could encourage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep grizzlies on the endangered species list out of concern that Fielder’s proposals would result in unintentional grizzly deaths.
- ❌ House Bill 627, House Bill 628 and House Bill 630 narrowly passed out of committee before being rejected by House lawmakers. They would have directed the commission to allow wolf trappers to use neck snares and established a wolf trapping season and black bear hound hunting season in state law.
- ❌ A couple of wolf advocate-backed measures stalled in committee. House Bill 779, which sought to restore the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s ability to take wolf management units adjacent to national parks off limits to hunters and trappers, was tabled by the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee during the transmittal week crush, as was House Bill 765, which sponsor Rep. Susan Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, described as an attempt to eliminate what she calls a “bounty” on wolves authorized by the 2021 Legislature.
Two measures seeking to whet the federal governments’ appetite to delist grizzly bears are well on their way, having passed out of the Senate with comfortable margins.
- ✅ Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, introduced Senate Bill 85 at the request of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It directs the state to “manage grizzly bear populations at levels to maintain their delisted status” by managing mortalities and relocations. Lawmakers amended the bill to specify that proactive grizzly management should include “nonlethal and preventative measures” in addition to trapping and lethal measures. It’s awaiting a hearing before the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee.
- ✅ Senate Bill 295 has a pile of sponsors eager for state management of grizzlies, but its lead sponsor is Rocky Mountain Front rancher Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge, who’s seeking to revise a bill he successfully introduced last session. Among other provisions, SB 295 directs ranchers concerned about a grizzly bear “threatening” livestock to contact FWP’s director, who will decide on an appropriate course of action. It passed out of the House with just one Democrat, Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, in support.
Proposals dealing with wildlife habitat and public land access have garnered considerable interest this session from a wide variety of stakeholders, ranging from sporting groups and agricultural groups to timber companies. Recent debates over permanent conservation easements and prescriptive — sometimes called historic — easements have illuminated an interesting divide in the Republican Party between those who, like Land Board member and Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, are leery of the state adding any more land acquisitions to its portfolio, and those who have little appetite to tinker with landowners’ ability to put permanent development restrictions on their property or fuss with the state’s stream access law.
- ❌ Senate Bill 357, a measure sponsored by Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, seeking to restrict the state’s ability to secure permanent conservation easements was voted down by the Senate Fish and Game Committee Feb. 28. SB 357 was met by opposition from a diverse, powerful group of individuals and interest groups disinclined to restrict a tool frequently used by FWP to secure wildlife habitat and public access.
- ❌ Senate Bill 497, which sought to change state laws regarding prescriptive easements — unrecorded easements often used by recreationists to access waterways and parcels of public land bordered by private land — had a swift rise and an equally swift decline. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, was heard and voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 28, and failed a second reading vote in the Senate 14-36 the following day.
- ✅ Senate Bill 58, which would increase the payment cap for landowners participating in block management to $50,000, passed out of the Senate 47-3. It’s an FWP-proposed and Gianforte-backed bill that proponents describe as an important element of state land managers’ efforts to keep the state’s premier hunter access program competitive in the face of rival programs on the private market.
Three proposals seeking to reallocate some or all of the state’s recreational marijuana tax revenue from wildlife habitat and public land programs to other funding pots are still alive. Since they’re appropriations bills, they’re subject to a later legislative transmittal deadline of April 3. Opponents of the measures have argued that lawmakers shouldn’t tamper with the tax revenues, since a tax allocation framework was included in the 2020 ballot initiative legalizing recreational marijuana in Montana. Proponents counter that lawmakers are trying to funnel funding generated by lucrative marijuana sales toward the state’s most pressing needs.
- ✴️ House Bill 669 would move marijuana tax revenues out of programs dedicated to wildlife habitat, state parks, trails and recreational facilities and put them into the state’s General Fund instead. It’s still awaiting an up or down vote in the House Appropriations Committee, as is House Bill 462, which would funnel much of the current habitat- and parks-dedicated funding into addiction recovery, corrections and law enforcement programs.
- ✅ Senate Bill 442 would allocate marijuana tax revenues toward county and city road construction and maintenance in a new funding bucket called the “county road habitat access account.” Sponsor Mike Lang, R-Malta, has said the fund could improve access to block management lands used by non-outfitted hunters pursuing game animals on private land. It passed out of the Senate Taxation Committee Feb. 28 and is awaiting a vote before the full Senate.
The big energy-related topics of the session thus far deal with incentives and disincentives tied to the development and delivery of fossil fuels and renewable energies. A proposal to make several changes to net metering, which allows residential solar customers to put excess electricity onto the grid and pull from a utility’s power lines during times of high demand, garnered considerable interest in the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee, which has been described by Committee Chair Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings, as a “slow burn” committee. It conducted many of its bill hearings in the two weeks leading up to the transmittal deadline. A couple of proposals involving the Montana Public Service Commission, the elected body that regulates monopoly utility companies, also garnered considerable interest.
- ✅ House Bill 170, a “repealer” measure seeking to strike the Legislature’s state energy policy, passed out of the House on party lines with GOP lawmakers in favor and Democrats opposed. Proponents of HB 170 argue that the 30-year-old energy policy lawmakers first adopted when Marc Racicot was governor is a toothless piece of code lacking regulatory weight, and that Gov. Gianforte should have an opportunity to start fresh with his own vision for Montana’s energy future. Opponents counter that it’s ill-advised for the Legislature to willingly surrender its own energy vision.
- ✅ House Bill 241, which would prevent a local government from requiring that new buildings be constructed with solar panels or solar panel-ready or electric vehicle-ready wiring, passed the House and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate. It’s sponsored by Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton.
- ✅ Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, sponsored a similar “powers denied” measure, Senate Bill 208, which would prevent local governments from prohibiting or impeding the connection or reconnection of natural gas or propane lines. It passed the House on March 2, largely on party lines with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.
- ✅ Small also sponsored Senate Bill 228, which would prevent local governments from prohibiting the use of any petroleum-based fuels such as natural gas or methane. Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, was the lone Republican to join Democrats in voting no on SB 228. It passed out of the Senate 33-17.
- ❌ An effort to make the Public Service Commission, the state’s utility regulating board, an appointed rather than elected body stalled in committee. House Bill 755 sought to establish job qualifications that would render candidates eligible for the appointment and create a bipartisan nominating advisory committee to forward commissioner recommendations to the governor. It was tabled by the House Legislative Administration Committee on Feb. 28.
- ✅ Another bill related to the PSC, Senate Bill 109, passed out of the Senate on a 30-20 vote late last week. Bill sponsor Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, introduced an amendment to his measure last week that would use state House districts as a model to redraw PSC district boundaries. Regier said his amendment divvies the state’s population proportionally. Opponents countered that Regier’s boundaries unfairly favor Republican PSC candidates and split several of the state’s largest cities.
- ❌ House Bill 643, a Kassmier measure proposing a handful of changes to net metering, was voted down in the House Energy Committee during the transmittal week crush. It would have raised the net metering cap, which renewable advocates have long called for. It would also have created a new rate class for solar customers and directed the PSC to study solar’s cost to utilities, both of which opponents described as efforts to disincentivize residential solar adoption.
- ❌ House Bill 454, sponsored by Rep. Gary Parry, R-Colstrip, would have substantially increased the taxes paid by large-scale renewable energy producers, generating revenues that would then be split between the coal severance tax trust fund and a county renewable resource electrical production impacts account. It was tabled in the House Taxation Committee, 20-1.
On the transportation front, “electric” is the word of the session. It’s looking likely that the Legislature will pass taxes to be levied on electric vehicle owners and users of public EV charging stations. The former is a (more moderately priced) revival of a bill that made it through the Legislature during the 2021 session only to be vetoed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, who took issue with Montana EV owners paying some of the “highest fees in the nation.” The latter represents a new effort to garner funding for highway construction and maintenance from out-of-state EV drivers. Both are sponsored by House Transportation Committee Chair, Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis.
- ✅ House Bill 60 sets up a system to tax EV and plug-in hybrid owners when they remit annual vehicle registration fees to their county treasurer. The tax ranges from $130 to $1,100 depending on the vehicle’s weight. It’s been voted through the House and the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee.
- ✅ House Bill 55 establishes a structure for taxing public EV charging station users and requires new charging stations to include electricity meters. An attempt to establish an entirely new tax, HB 55 has been heavily amended in the legislative grinder. A new fiscal note has been requested, and the bill has passed out of the House Appropriations Committee, but hasn’t been kicked back to the House for a third reading vote yet.
Republican lawmakers also proposed bills to explicitly state where electric motor-assisted bikes can be ridden. Both of those measures — House Bill 261 and Senate Bill 342 — progressed through their second reading only to be voted down on third reading, the final step before continuing to the opposite legislative body. Although there are some notable differences between the two bills, both would have made low-powered e-bikes explicitly legal on all state-managed trails where regular bicycles can be ridden.
Lawmakers, lobbyists and agency leads have referenced a handful of bills in the environmental and recreation-management realm that are still taking shape. They include proposals to put some of the state’s $2.5 billion surplus toward a legacy trust for private and public land conservation and habitat restoration projects; a legislative fix to address overcrowding on the Madison, one of the state’s most popular rivers; and a tweak or repeal of a 2021 bill that directed the DEQ to come up with an alternative to numeric nutrient water quality standards. We’ll be tracking those proposals if they come up for a hearing as well.
See something big in the environmental realm we missed here? Feel free to email reporter Amanda Eggert at aeggert@montanafreepress with tips about bills that are important but flying under the radar.