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Montana Judge Cancels Gas Power Plant Permit Over Climate Concern

Above Photo: The site along the banks of the Yellowstone River in Laurel, Montana where NorthWestern Energy has been building a gas power plant. Northern Plains Resource Council.

Climate concerns motivated a Montana judge to cancel the air quality permit for a controversial natural gas power plant.

The 175-megawatt NorthWestern Energy plant would have emitted more than 23 million tons of greenhouse gases over its 30-year or more lifespan — the equivalent of adding 167,327 new cars to the roads each year — something that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) did not fully consider when it issued the permit, Montana 13th Judicial District Court Judge Michael Moses ruled Thursday.

“DEQ’s failure to analyze this issue violated the clear and unambiguous language of MEPA [the Montana Environmental Policy Act],” Moses wrote. “Failure to analyze this issue was arbitrary and capricious and a clear violation of MEPA.”

The Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based NorthWestern Energy is building the $250 million plant along the banks of the Yellowstone River, AP News reported. However, it is controversial with the people who would live near the plant in Laurel, Montana, who have joined together to oppose it as the “Thiel Road Coalition,” according to a Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) press release.

“We are very concerned that this project will harm people who live near the proposed plant,” Laurel resident and retired refinery worker Steve Krum said in the press release. “Every time we have raised concerns about the impacts this plant will have on the quality of life of the neighbors and the Yellowstone River, those concerns have been dismissed. We appreciate that our concerns finally got a fair shake in court.”

MEIC filed the lawsuit to block the permit alongside the Sierra Club in 2021, AP News reported. In response, the DEQ argued that state law did not give it the authority to make decisions based on global climate impacts, but Moses said it should consider how additional emissions would impact Montana.

For example, in June 2022, a combination of heavy rainfall and snowmelt from warmer than average temperatures triggered extreme flooding in Yellowstone National Park that forced it to close and altered its landscape “dramatically.” Experts at the time said that the extreme precipitation and warmer temperatures were exactly what was expected in the area as the climate warms.

“To most Montanans who clearly understand their fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, this is a significant project,” Moses wrote.

Beyond the climate impacts, Moses also sided with the plaintiffs to rule that the DEQ did not fully consider the impact of light pollution from the plant.

“Because DEQ failed to take the requisite hard look at the lighting emissions, their position on this issue is arbitrary and capricious,” he wrote.

In response to the ruling, NorthWest Energy said it would appeal.

“After significant review and analysis, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued NorthWestern Energy an air quality permit on Sept. 8, 2021 which allowed the company to initiate construction of this project,” NorthWestern Energy Vice President of Supply and Montana Government Affairs John Hines said in a statement. “This ruling appears to require new criteria to be analyzed, and jeopardizes reliable service for our Montana customers during critical times when customer energy demand is high, the coldest nights and the hottest days, typically times when renewable resources are generating little or no energy. Our air permit was reviewed and approved by the DEQ using standards that have been in effect for many years. We began construction of this project with this in mind. We will work with the DEQ to determine the path forward.”

DEQ, meanwhile, told AP News it was reviewing the decision. Laurel residents, however, feel vindicated.

“For too long it’s felt like a David versus Goliath battle. I’m so tired of the government and NorthWestern ignoring us. We live here. We have raised concerns time and time again about the impacts of this plant,” Thiel Road Coalition member Carah Ronan, a farmer and small business owner, said in the MEIC press release. “When the government breaks the law and refuses to listen to the folks who live in the area, we have nowhere else to turn but the courts. We are thankful that the courts are willing to side with average Montanans who are just concerned about their health, property, businesses, and future generations.”

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