Action alert: New developments in landowner lawsuit against Stillwater County; what you can do to help

A district court hearing in the Beartooth Front landowners’ suit against the Stillwater County Commissioners, originally scheduled for May 23, was postponed by mutual agreement of the parties. The reason for the postponement was a positive development in discussions between the landowners and the Commissioners.

The two sides agreed that the landowners would propose a county-inititiated zone to the Stillwater County Planning Board on June 5. If the Planning Board recommends forming the zone, which would regulate oil and gas activity along the Beartooth Front, and the Commissioners approve it, the lawsuit would become unnecessary.

If the zone is not formed, the lawsuit will continue.

You can provide critical support by attending the Planning Board meeting and speaking up to show that residents are behind the landowners’ efforts. Read more below.

Landowners began working on a proposal to create a special district in October 2013, when the Billings Gazette announced that a Denver oil and gas operator had opened an office in Billings with the intention of “bringing a little bit of the Bakken” to the Beartooth Front. At the same time a drill pad appeared off Highway 419 near Dean.

Local residents of southern Stillwater County were alarmed that this kind of development could occur without any advance notice or planning for the mitigation of potential impacts to natural resources and the financial interests of private landowners.

They approached the Stillwater County Commissioners to request support for a citizen-initiated zone to ensure that any future drilling was done with proper consideration for the unique character of the Beartooth Front area. Their intent was not to block drilling, but to make sure that it was done right.

The Commissioners refused to meet with them or provide support. Undeterred, the group decided to form a citizen-initiated zone, which required a supporting petition signed by 60% of local landowners. They collected over 575 signatures, which they presented to the County in November 2015.

The County ignored and delayed validating the petitions, finally announcing in  August 2017 that the group had surpassed the required 60% of signatures.

But there was a hitch. The County decided to interpret Montana law in a way it has never been interpreted before, saying that the law required the signatures of not only 60% of the landowners, but 60% of the underlying mineral owners. The petitioners were left with no choice but to sue for their rights.

Local landowners showed up in force at a hearing in Columbus last July.

The suit has wended its way through the courts, surviving a motion to dismiss by the County and a change of judges, and was scheduled for a hearing in district court on May 23 to decide the case.

But the Commissioners met with the landowners in May, and a decision was made to consider the landowners’ proposal to form a zone before the Planning Board at its June 5 meeting. If the Planning Board decides to go forward with a zone, and it is approved by the Commissioners, the suit would become unnecessary.

Action Alert. What you can do to help
Formation of a zone will be the subject of discussion of at least the next three meetings of the Stillwater Planning Board. These meetings are open to the public, and audience members have the opportunity to speak.

Your attendance at these meetings is critical. After six years of study, signature gathering, and meetings, there is a real opportunity right now to protect our land by making sure that any future oil and gas drilling is done right. Please forward this to others who you think might be interested.

This is probably the last opportunity to settle this issue out of court. Please help to make it count.

Meetings are held on the first Wednesday of the month, so the next three dates are:

June 5
July 3
August 7

Meetings are held at 7:00pm at the Stillwater County Planning Office at 431 Quarry Road in Columbus.

Background material for Planning Board Meeting:
The landowners will present the following proposal material to the Planning Board at the meeting on June 5:
Beartooth Front Zoning District Overview
Zoning District Map
Overview of Proposed Regulation

More information on the lawsuit:
Beartooth Front Landowners present hundreds of signatures to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up oil and gas zoning district (with video)
Do mineral rights have anything to do with citizen initiated zones in Montana?
Stillwater County Commissioners turn their backs on locals who pay their salaries; support unknown outsiders
Beartooth Front landowners file legal action against Stillwater County Commissioners
Landowners show up for hearing on Beartooth Front lawsuit

Court documents
Court documents and other records related to the lawsuit can be found at the Beartooth Front Coalition website.

Watch the Preserve the Beartooth Front video:


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Learning Opportunity: Absarokee, Tuesday, May 21, 7pm

For the last six years local activists have focused on developing a responsible approach to oil and gas drilling in the rural West, places like Stillwater and Carbon counties in Montana. Our argument has been that we need to act in advance of drilling to make sure that we are not overrun by heavy industry that is poorly regulated in Montana. We have struggled to work with local officials, who have not always been responsive to this approach.

Dr. Julia Haggerty

Dr. Julia Haggerty, professor of geography at MSU, is an expert in this area. She has done extensive research on the communities of the West and how they respond to change. In her presentation, at the Absarokee Cobblestone School at 7pm on Tuesday, May 21, she will explore, using energy development as her subject, how local rural communities can cope with change that can transform a region in an instant. The event is free to the public. Refreshments will be served.

She argues that local government has changed in nature over the last few decades, making it very difficult to cope with major economic shifts. Her fundamental message is that like it or not, local communities have to rely on their own resources to cope with rapid change. She gives examples of how local government and local citizens’ groups have risen to the challenge by forming organizations and policies to contend with geographic, economic and social change.  Sometimes they have been successful and other times not, and she notes the success factors that separate communities.

Her presentations are down to earth and easy to understand, and she has partnered with photographer Chris Boyer to take spectacular photos that illustrate the change she is talking about.

Come on out to learn and talk to your neighbors about this important issue.

The event is co-sponsored by:


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From Jimmy Kimmel: Kids explain climate change to Donald Trump (video)

It’s been cold this week in Montana, with wind chills down to -40°. Cold enough for mail service to be suspended in the eastern part of the state.

Leave it to the President, who has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by China (and worse), to completely misrepresent what this means, tweeting this beaut:

Trump clearly misunderstands the science behind global warming, and once again makes the classic error of confusing weather and climate. I was going to explain this myself, but I think these kids do it much more clearly than I possibly could have. From the Jimmy Kimmel show:

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Preserve the Beartooth Front honored by The Montana Post

Don Pogreba

Preserve the Beartooth Front was recognized by Don Pogreba of The Montana Post in his article on Best of the Montana Blogs 2018. The article he cites is our August post on How the Trump Administration is quietly stripping away environmental protections.

Make no mistake about it — Trump and company have done everything they can to roll back environmental protections that have been established over many decades. This has been done primarily through rulemaking and other administrative procedures, which are generally ignored by cable news but can have a huge impact.

Thanks Don!

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Largest oil and gas reserve in US discovered. It’s not the Christmas gift Ryan Zinke thinks it is.

On December 6 the US Department of the Interior announced the the discovery of the largest deposit of undiscovered, recoverable oil and gas resources in US history. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the reserve contains 46.3 billion barrels of oil, 281 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 20 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.

Map of Wolfkamp Basin (USGS). Click to enlarge.

The reserve is called the Wolfcamp Shale and overlying Bone Spring Formation , and it is located in west Texas and southeast New Mexico.

By contrast, the Bakken formation in the Williston Basin of North Dakota will ultimately produce an estimated 7.4 billion barrels of oil according to a 2013 USGS estimate. Note the difference in estimates between what is “technically recoverable” in the Wolfcamp Shale and what will ultimately be produced in the Bakken. The Wolfcamp Shale may not actually produce 46 billion barrels of oil, but it is huge.

“Christmas came a few weeks early this year,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. “American strength flows from American energy, and as it turns out, we have a lot of American energy. Before this assessment came down, I was bullish on oil and gas production in the United States. Now, I know for a fact that American energy dominance is within our grasp as a nation.”

Zinke by the Christmas tree

Zinke’s reaction cuts to the heart of the critical challenge we face today. The announcement of this new reserve comes just two weeks after the release of the National Climate Assessment by the Trump Administration. This scientific assessment says we must act now to fight climate change or we face hundreds of billions of dollars in public health costs and a huge decline in our economy.

So we have one branch of the government telling us that it is a scientific fact that human-based climate change will cause huge damage if we don’t do something about it, and another branch jumping up and down by the Christmas tree like a kid who just got 46 billion barrels of candy and intends to eat it all before sundown.

Here’s the truth: we can’t take all that oil and gas out of the ground or we’re going to pay a far higher long-term price than the short-term financial benefit.

Ryan Zinke needs to be dragged away from his Christmas presents and replaced by a responsible adult who can balance the critical choices we have to face right now.


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Stillwater County landowner lawsuit update: County runs out the clock on Judge Jones; hearing set for January 16

In the three months since my last update on the Beartooth Front landowners’ lawsuit against the Stillwater County Commissioners, the Commissioners have carefully followed a familiar path — delay, delay, delay. The result is that a new judge will have to hear the case, likely resulting in more delays down the road.

Judge Blair Jones

The landowners filed the suit last February after the Commissioners denied a petition to set up a citizen-initated zone to regulate oil and gas drilling in southern Stillwater County. The Commissioners ruled that the petition did not qualify, even though it met the legal requirement of the signatures of 60% of the landowners in the proposed zone. According to the Commissioners, the petitioners needed the signatures of 60% of the minerals owners in the proposed zone in addition to the landowners.

Montana counties, including Stillwater, have set up 111 citizen-initiated zones in the state in the last 65 years, and this is the first time a county has ever required the signatures of minerals owners to set up such a zone.

On August 28, the landowners filed their brief in the suit, which demands the Commissioners certify their petition and hold a hearing on the zone. According to Montana law, the County had 21 days to respond, and the landowners would then have 10 additional days to file their own response. If these timelines were met, all briefs would have been filed in September, and a hearing could have been scheduled.

The timing was critical, as both parties understood, because Judge Blair Jones, who was assigned to the case, is retiring at the end of 2018. Judge Jones has already ruled on the first motion in the case, and was familiar with the issues.

Local landowners showed up in force at a hearing in Columbus last July.

But on September 13 the County filed a motion asking for an extension until November 1 to file their response, citing a need for additional time to review the landowners’ brief, prepare their arguments, and have them reviewed by the County. Judge Jones granted an extension until October 22.

After granting the extension, Judge Jones notified the parties that it would not be possible for him to hold a hearing and render a decision before his retirement. He set a hearing date for January 16, 2019.

Matthew Wald. Photo: Stillwater County News

The new judge will be Matthew J. Wald of Hardin, who was elected on November 6 to fill Judge Jones’ seat as 22nd District Judge. Wald defeated Raymond Kuntz of Red Lodge to win the seat.

In other developments in the case, Stillwater County has filed a cross motion for summary judgment, a standard procedure in cases of this type. Three of the four required briefs have now been filed, with the landowners filing their final brief last week. The County’s final brief is due in 10 days.

Also, Budd-Falen, the Cheyenne law firm representing Stillwater County, has asked that a second attorney be admitted to the Montana Bar in order to try the case. He is Brendan L. Jensen, who has been practicing environmental law at the firm for the last 18 years.

Delays are nothing new in this case. The landowners originally submitted their petition in November, 2015, and the County has taken every opportunity to avoid complying with the law and granting the petition, which would put reasonable regulations on drilling, not ban it.

Beartooth Front landowners present hundreds of signatures to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up oil and gas zoning district
Do mineral rights have anything to do with citizen initiated zoning in Montana?
Beartooth Front zone update: Stillwater Commissioners turn their backs on locals who pay their salaries; support unknown outsiders
Beartooth Front landowners file suit against Stillwater County Commissioners
Stillwater residents give Commissioners an earful on proposed policy (with video)
Landowners show up for hearing on Beartooth Front lawsuit
Beartooth Front landowners win first round of lawsuit

Lawsuit documents
Beartooth Front Coalition brief requesting summary judgment – filed August 28, 2018
Stillwater County’s request for extension – filed September 13, 2018
Judge Jones’ order granting extension – filed September 20, 2018
County’s brief in support of cross-motion for Summary Judgment – filed October 30, 2018
Landowners’ response to cross-motion for Summary Judgment – filed November 30, 2018

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The National Climate Report: Don’t be duped. Understand it yourself, and take action.

The Trump Administration released its National Climate Assessment (NCA) last Friday. This is the work product of the science agencies of our country, and reflects the best scientific thinking we have to offer on the impacts of climate change over the next several decades. Here are the findings in a nutshell:

  • Climate change is real.
  • Science has determined the cause of climate change. It is almost 100% due to human activity.
  • We can see the impacts today. They are here, and they are accelerating.
  • Over the next several decades climate change will cause substantial damage to the US economy, human health and the environment
  • The situation is not hopeless. By acting now, and acting forcefully, we can still avoid the most serious and dangerous impacts.
  • It’s up to us. We hold our fate in our hands.

The findings are completely consistent with the Montana Climate Assessment, the work of 32 Montana scientists from the public and private sector, published last year.

The Administration tried to bury the report by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving, and has since jumped on the climate denial bandwagon to minimize and discredit the outcome.

Donald Trump
It starts with the President saying he just doesn’t believe what the report has to say.

The report is science. It is not a matter of belief. No credible climate scientists dispute the findings of the report. As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe says, “You can say, ‘I don’t believe in gravity,’ but if you step off a cliff you’re going down.” By using his bully pulpit to discredit the report without reason, the President is the main impediment to solving the problem.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders
The Administration sent out Sarah Huckabee Sanders to discredit their own report. She claimed the report is not based data driven, and is based on “the most extreme scenario.”

This is simply not true. The report considered multiple scenarios, from one in which emissions are reduced to one where emissions continue to increase. And the notion that the modeling in the report is not data driven is ridiculous. From the report:

Administration spokespeople
Administration spokespeople like Rick Santorum and Tom Delay littered the cable TV news channels, claiming that climate scientists are only coming up with these conclusions to line their own pockets with grant money. This is nonsense. According to the New York Times,

At Pennsylvania State University, professors in the earth and mineral sciences department made an average salary of $157,773, which was below the university-wide average of $166,731. Professors in earth and environmental sciences earned $98,567 on average at Iowa State University, compared with the average salary of $134,039.

This argument makes no sense. The Climate Assessment agrees with research being done by the oil companies themselves.  And can you imagine how many millions lobbying groups would pay a top climate scientist to deny the findings of this report? Climate scientists were paid nothing to contribute to this report.

You need to inform yourself
What is glaringly obvious is that nobody representing the Administration disputed factually any of the scientific findings in the report. You can allow yourself to be duped by the Administration, or you can find out for yourself. Failure to act is exactly what will lead us to the most disastrous scenario.

The NCA is a congressionally-mandated report released at least every four years on what the past, present, and future of climate change means for the United States. The report is produced by 13 federal agencies comprising the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a presidential initiative started by President Ronald Reagan and mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990. It is the best work we have to offer.

Here’s where to download the report. Downloads are available in manageable pieces.

And here, courtesy of Climate Nexus, are the key findings of the report:

  • Human activity is the primary cause for the warming temperatures we are undoubtedly experiencing.
  • If we act now to fight climate change, by the end of this century we will save hundreds of billions of dollars just in public health costs, and save thousands of lives a year.
  • The cost of climate change right now is substantial. We are paying billions of dollars for the damage caused by worsening storms, more deadly heat waves, more frequent wildfires, and the worsening spread of allergies and disease.
  • Americans are already planning and adapting. The US military, farmers, businesses, and local communities are all in action.
  • The bottom line is that climate change is a clear and present danger to the health and wealth of the American people.

Topline findings of the report:

  1. Human activity, primarily burning fossil fuels, is causing climate change. There is no credible alternative to global warming emissions to explain the warming.
  • Global average temperatures have risen 1.8°F (1.0°C) since 1901, predominantly because of human activity, especially the emission of heat-trapping gases.
  • Globally, 16 of the last 17 years are the warmest years on record.
  • Depending on the region, Americans could experience an additional month to two month’s worth of days with maximum temperatures above 100°F by 2050, with that severe heat becoming commonplace in the southeast by 2100.

2. Economic losses from climate change are significant for some sectors of the U.S. economy.

  • In some sectors, losses driven by the impacts of climate change could exceed $100 billion annually by the end of the century.
  • If we don’t reduce carbon emissions, extreme temperatures could end up costing billions upon billions in lost wages annually by the end of the century, and negatively impact the health of construction, agricultural and other outdoor workers.
  • Many aspects of climate change – including extreme heat, droughts, and floods – will pose risks to the U.S. agricultural sector. In many places, including Montana, crop yields, as well as crop and grazing land quality, are expected to decline as a result.
  • We may be underestimating our level of risk by failing to account for multiple impacts occurring at once, or not planning for impacts that will span across government borders and sector boundaries.
  • Our aging infrastructure, especially our electric grid, will continue to be stressed by extreme weather events, which is why helping communities on the frontlines of climate impacts to adapt is so crucial.

nca4b3. Americans are already responding to the climate change impacts of burning fossil fuels.

  • Increased global warming emissions have contributed to the observed increases in Atlantic hurricane activity since 1970.
  • Climate change doubled the area burned by wildfires across the West between 1984 and 2015, relative to what would have burned without warming. Climate change was a greater factor in area burned between 1916 and 2003 than was fire suppression, fire management or non-climate factors.
  • By 2100, annual acreage burned by wildfires could increase by as much as 6 times in some places. The U.S. spends an average of about $1 billion annually to fight wildfires, but spent over $2 billion in 2015 due to extreme drought. Costs exceeded $2 billion in the first 8 months of 2017.
  • The U.S. military is already working to understand the increased risks of security issues resulting from climate change-induced resource shocks (droughts causing crop failure, for example, which can contribute to civil unrest) as well as extreme weather events and direct impacts on military infrastructure, like sea level rise or extreme heat at military bases.

nca4a4. Storm surge and tidal flooding frequency, depth and extent are worsened by sea level rise, presenting a significant risk to America’s trillion-dollar coastal property market.

  • Global sea level has risen about 8-9 inches since 1880, 3 inches of which have come since just 1993. We can expect at least several inches more in the next 15 years, with 1-4 feet very likely by 2100, and as much as 8 feet physically possible by 2100.
  • Sea level rise has already increased the frequency of high tide flooding by a factor of 5 to 10 since the 1960s for some US coastal communities.
  • Climate change is already hurting coastal ecosystems, posing a threat to the fisheries and tourism industries as well as public safety and human health. Continuing coastal impacts will worsen pre-existing social inequities as vulnerable communities reckon with how to adapt.

5. Every American’s health is at risk from climate change, with the elderly, young, working class and communities of color being particularly vulnerable.

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will, by the end of the century, potentially save thousands of lives annually, and generate hundreds of billions of dollars of health-related economic benefits compared to a high emissions scenario.
  • Allergies like hay fever and asthma are likely already becoming more frequent and severe.
  • Warmer temperatures are expected to alter the range of mosquitoes and ticks that carry vector-borne diseases like Zika, West Nile virus, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.
  • Drier conditions in Arizona and California have led to greater growth of the fungus that leads to Valley Fever (coccidioidomycosis) while Cryptococcal infections were strictly tropical before 1999, but have moved northward, with Oregon experiencing 76 cases in 2015.
  • West Nile is projected to double by 2050, with a $1 billion annual price tag.

6. We can do something about this. Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources will reduce the risks of climate impacts.

  • A certain amount of warming is likely “locked in” so adaptation is still required.
  • The faster we reduce global warming emissions, the less risk we face and the cheaper it will be to adapt.
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Action Alert: Please write the Stillwater County Commissioners by Thursday, November 22

This is a request for action from those of you in Stillwater County. The County is in the process of updating its growth plan, last updated in 2007. They have done a poor job of soliciting input from the public, and the current draft of the plan is inadequate in many respects. I write about oil and gas issues, an area that has received little attention in the draft, so I am asking you to comment on that.

COMMENTS ARE DUE NO LATER THAN THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 22, so please submit yours by then. Send by email to

The Beartooth Front is a unique area that is vulnerable to oil and gas drilling. A failure to plan jeopardizes its long-term health.

Growth planning in Montana
 planning is an essential element of county government in Montana. The comprehensive county growth plan was enshrined into law by the Legislature in 1999. While a growth plan does not have the force of law, it is an important document for shaping future policy. According to this law, the development of a growth plan is required to enact zoning.

Unlike in 2007, the County Commissioners have not been proactive in soliciting public comment. As a result they have received very little feedback, and so we have a chance to influence the plan by having an outsied voice about issues that are important to us.

You can view the 2018 draft growth plan by clicking here. The discussion regarding oil and gas development is mainly in Sections 4 and 5.

Here are the comments it would be helpful for you to make:

  1. Express concern about the impact of future oil and gas drilling and how it might impact areas in Stillwater County along the Beartooth Front in any or all of the following ways: incompatibility with agriculture, ranching, recreation, health, environment, or community. Speak about your personal concerns, and the need to develop regulations to ensure that drilling is done in a way that protects us.
  2. Please make this specific point: In section 5.1 of the document, there is the following statement:

“Stillwater County currently has one citizen initiated zoning district on the West Fork of the Stillwater River (see map on page 5-2) and has received petitions and inquiries about creating other planning and zoning districts. This trend may continue in the absence of land use controls, so it may be beneficial for the County to begin evaluating regulatory options now to avoid addressing issues on a case-by-cases basis.”

Please ask the commissioners to delete this paragraph. In the entire history of Stillwater County, there have been three citizen initiated zoning petitions — one in 1979, one in 1998, and one in 2015 (the Beartooth Front petition). This is not a trend, and it is appropriate for individual areas of the county to develop their own zones when they have unique needs.

You may wish to comment on other areas of the plan. For your interest, here is a letter from local resident Burt Williams, who made wide ranging comments.

Inadequate community outreach
Here’s some background on how the Stillwater County Commissioners have not taken public feedback seriously. In 2007 they did. They sent direct mail surveys to over 3000 county residents, and they held 12 public meetings all over the county. County employees attended public events and handed out surveys, and there were notices published in local papers.

Their efforts yielded broad public input. The meetings were well attended, and they received 400 surveys back, getting valuable input on the issues that were important to residents. That return represented about 5% of county residents, which, as any marketer will tell you, is a strong response.

In 2018, there was no such earnest effort to solicit public input. Surveys were not mailed to residents, but were only placed online on the County’s web page. Notices were placed on organizational Facebook pages, but the social media outreach did not extend beyond organizational pages to social pages such as the Come Together Absarokee site, which has over 1700 members. There were only four community meetings — in Park City, Columbus, Reed Point, and Absarokee.

This lackluster effort could not be classified as outreach at all. A web-only strategy with no direct personal notifications only reaches a small number of people. How many of you went to the Growth Plan page on the Stillwater County web site during the summer? I didn’t think so.

The results were predictable. The County received only about 65 surveys from residents, a paltry return of less than 1% of residents. As an example, there were 22 survey responses from Nye in 2007; there were none in 2018.

Why this batch of commissioners is uninterested in engaging with the public is beyond my speculation at this point, but planning in Stillwater County is going to suffer unless you take this opportunity to raise your voice.

Growth plan, public_private

Click to read Carbon County’s 2015 Growth Plan update

How it works in Carbon County
Neighboring Carbon County updated their growth plan in 2015, and their public outreach was a model for how residents can be engaged to develop a growth plan that serves the public rather than the county commissioners.

The County began by soliciting public input through an extensive road show, holding half-day meetings all over the county. They made a video of public input and made it available. There were ongoing discussions at well-attended planning board meetings.

The result was a comprehensive document, which you can view by clicking on the graphic above. Input on oil and gas development received during this process led to the establishment in 2016 of a zone that provided reasonable regulation on drilling, including a 750-foot minimum county-wide setback of wellheads from occupied dwellings (see p. 22). (Montana does not require setbacks from occupied dwellings.)

Please write the Stillwater commissioners by November 22 to make sure they hear what we have to say about planning.


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Lessons from other states: Nevada and Arizona

We are currently looking at energy initiatives in other states that are on the ballot in November, 2018. Previous posts:

Lessons from other states: Colorado
Lessons from other states: Washington carbon fee initiative
November ballot initiatives in other states

Renewable portfolio standards: Nevada and Arizona
There are two nearly identical November 6 ballot measures in Arizona and Nevada, where voters will separately decide whether to require utilities to acquire at least half of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Both measures would raise the “Renewable Portfolio Standard” (RPS) to 50% by 2030. An RPS requires electric utilities to ensure that a specified percentage of electricity they sell comes from renewable energy, which is usually tracked through a credit system. That allows for certain types of energy, such as electricity produced through rooftop solar systems, to have a “credit multiplier” effect and count more towards meeting the required minimum production standard.

Nevada Amendment 6, if approved, would change the state constitution to raise Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard] to 50 percent by 2030. The state’s current RPS is set at 20 percent and will increase to 25 percent by 2025. The PAC supporting the ballot measure was able to turn in more than 230,000 signatures to state election officials in June, far above the required 112,544 signatures needed to make it onto the ballot.

NV Energy, the state’s primary electric utility, said in April that it had a 24 percent clean energy portfolio for 2017, ahead of the required 20 percent RPS minimum. The utility has not taken a position on Amendment 6, which means it has a good chance of passing.

The Crescent Dunes Solar Project, 190 miles NW of Las Vegas, began operation in 2015. Photo by Amble.

If approved, the RPS would not immediately increase to 50 percent overnight — instead rising to 26 percent through 2022 and 2023 and rising by 8 percent every subsequent two-year period until 2030.

NextGen Climate Action is the primary PAC supporting Amendment 6, and has raised $6.4 million. There is no active fundraising campaign opposed.

Arizona Proposition 127  would increase the state’s RPS each year until reaching 50% by 2030. As of 2018, the state’s RPS is 15% by 2025. Proposition 127 would increase the RPS each year until reaching 50 percent in 2030. The initiative would define renewable energy to include sources such as solar, wind, biomass, certain hydropower, geothermal, and landfill gas energies.

As in Nevada, Next Gen Climate Action is leading the charge in favor of the initiative. Proponents have raised $23.6 million in support of the initiative. Unlike Nevada, Arizona’s largest electric retail provider, Arizona Public Service (APS), opposes the initiative. Pinnacle West, the parent of APS, has spearheaded fundraising of $31.2 million in opposition.

Opposition of the public utilities has made a significant difference. A late-September poll shows 33.6% of voters in favor of the Prop 127, and 46.6% opposed.

What is happening in other states?
At least 29 states have an RPS in place, and eight additional states have set nonbinding renewable energy “goals,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The most progressive RPS levels in the country:

Hawaii: 100% by 2045
California: 100% by 2045
Vermont: 75% by 2032
New Jersey, New York, Oregon: 50% by 2030

If the Arizona and Nevada initiatives pass, it will bring them up to the top tier of states.

Besides being a small step toward reducing the nation’s carbon footprint, the pair of ballot measures will test the extent to which states are willing to buck the Trump administration to prop up cleaner energy. If either or both passes, it is more likely we will see similar measures in 202o.

What is Montana doing?
In 2005, Montana passed a law that requires public utilities and competitive electricity suppliers with more than 50 customers to obtain 5% of their retail sales from renewables by 2015 and maintain the percentage each year thereafter. Montana has an RPS requirement of 15% by 2015, which must be maintained each year after that.

In 2005 this was a progressive standard, but there is little likelihood that the Legislature will update it in 2019. It will be up to voters to push a more progressive standard in 2020.

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Lessons from other states: Washington carbon fee initiative

Washington has been trying to pass a carbon tax for the last decade without success. But this year, as unhappiness with Trump’s anti-environment agenda grows, it looks like the state may succeed.

Initiative 1631 is on the November ballot. It would impose a starting fee of $15 per ton on carbon emissions, beginning in 2020, with 70 percent of the money raised invested in clean energy. If it passes, Washington will make history, becoming not only the first state in the union to adopt a carbon tax, but also the first government anywhere to do so by ballot referendum.

But passage is far from certain. Washington voters rejected a carbon tax the last time one appeared on the ballot, in November 2016, largely because the environmental community did not unanimously support it. This time around environmentalists are unified, but oil and gas companies—including Phillips 66, Chevron, BP, and Shell—have collectively donated $25 million to defeat the initiative.

clean-power-planWhy a carbon tax?
A carbon tax is a critical first step in dealing with the societal costs of climate change. It recognizes that climate change impacts — extreme weather events, sea level rise, droughts, and so on — must be considered as a cost of fossil fuel extraction, and should be factored into the price.

Today the price of energy from fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) is determined by market forces.  Oil prices, for example, are set by commodities traders, who bid on oil futures contracts in the commodities market. These contracts are agreements to buy or sell oil at a specific date in the future for an agreed-upon price.

Very simplistically, the primary factors that commodities traders use to develop their bids are:

  • The current supply of oil, based on OPEC quotes, and, increasingly, US shale oil production.
  • The amount of oil reserves held in refineries, in the US strategic oil reserve, or in Saudi Arabia.
  • Oil demand from markets around the world.

However, there is an additional cost of fossil fuels that is not factored into the price. It is the societal cost of releasing carbon into the atmosphere as a byproduct of fossil fuel production. This contributes to global warming, which has significant societal cost (extreme weather, drought, agricultural disruption, sea level rise, and so on).

In economic terms, this cost is called a “negative externality,” a cost that is suffered by a third party as a result of an economic transaction. Society suffers because of the purchase of fossil fuels.

A carbon tax is one mechanism that would price the externality of carbon emissions to make the price of fossil fuels an accurate reflection of all costs. If set correctly, a carbon tax will decrease fossil fuel usage and cause consumers to seek other sources of energy.

Initiative 1631 specifics
Initiative 1631 requires major polluters like fossil-fuel companies to pay $15 for every ton of carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere. The state estimates that this levy would generate roughly $2.2 billion in its first five years.

Initiative 1631 has attracted a broad coalition of support. Photo courtesy Yes on 1631.

These revenues would then be invested into a new fund to support projects that would accelerate the state’s transition away from fossil fuels, like public-transit development, energy-efficiency upgrades, and new wind- and solar-power plants.The fund would support other kinds of projects, as well. One-quarter of its revenue must be spent to protect forests and streams in the state. One-twentieth must directly flow to communities that stand to be hurt by either climate change or the transition away from fossil fuels, such a Centralia, which has the state’s only coal-fired power plant.

Initiative 1631 would take effect in 2020. For the next decade and a half, its starting fee of $15 would increase by $2 every year, plus inflation. In 2035, when the fee is projected to hit $55 a ton, state lawmakers could either freeze it in perpetuity or vote to continue its steady increase.

Why it matters
Although carbon taxes are not unique — about 20% of fossil fuel production in the world is taxed, a carbon fee enacted by voter initiative is unique. California has a cap and trade system passed by the state legislature, and Canada will implement a national tax of $38/ton in 2022.

If this initiative passes, expect many other states to follow this path in subsequent elections. Montana will not be one of them, until voters throw out legislators who are trying to prop up dying fossil fuel industries instead of looking to the future.

In a poll conducted October 5-9, 50% favored Initiative 1631, 36% opposed, and 14% were undecided.

We’ll report back after the election.

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