Pushing Back on the Montana Legislature’s Attempts to Stop Local Climate Action

By Delia Schmidt, Spring intern with the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club 

On March 20th, I testified at a bill hearing for the very first time. In the depths of the Montana State Capitol, I urged the members of the Local Government committee to oppose HB 241, a bill that aims to prevent local Montana governments from adopting solar ready and electric vehicle compatible building codes. These codes could make it far more affordable and easier for residents to install solar in their homes if they so choose. Given that the codes referred to by the bill impact local Montana homeowners the most, it would stand to reason that the decision to implement these codes would be up to the constituents of particular areas. However, HB 241, spearheaded by Representative Josh Kassmier, aims to remove this power from local governments and communities. 

This isn’t the only bill of its kind. There has been an alarming trend of “pre-emption” bills this legislative session. State preemption bills intend to prevent local governments from passing or enforcing legislation related to various topics. Montana has a diverse array of communities with their own unique needs and priorities. Dismissing the voices of local Montanans threatens local democracy and could have harmful consequences to the environment if elected officials are unable to pass legislation particular to their local environmental needs and concerns. 

SB 228 aims to “prohibit local governments from banning petroleum fuels,” preventing them not only from disallowing the building of gas power plants, petroleum refineries, and pipelines, but also from mitigating the effects of these projects.

SB 208 prevents local governments from taking action to “prohibit or impede the connection” of fossil fuel infrastructure in their jurisdiction and disallows the Department of Energy and Labor from writing building code that limits the use of any energy source. 

SB 178 would limit local governments from exercising certain powers to regulate cryptocurrency, or bitcoin mining operations, which are a huge drain on the energy grid. 

The overall effect of these bills is: if signed into law, locally elected officials will have a more difficult time regulating the use of greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, the implementation of renewable energy, and the impacts of the cryptocurrency mining industry. 

The good news is, you can still take local climate action. It is absolutely crucial to push back on efforts from the state government to prevent climate action. Although many of these preemption bills have been signed by  the governor’s office, we still have the power to call for a veto on HB 241. Check out the Montana Chapter’s fact sheets here, and make a call to the governor’s office as soon as possible to voice opposition to HB 241. You can check the state legislative website to check on the status of this bill (and whether or not the governor has signed it) here: HB 241. Should all of these bills make it through, it is important that we continue to make our voices heard at the polls and elect legislators who value the environment and will protect communities’ right to pursue climate action. 

These bills have passed out of the legislature already, but it only goes to show the fear of our politicians. The fear that local governments are leading the movement on fighting climate change and preserving our environment. Climate action is important at all levels of government, but Montanans making their voices heard at the local level is the first step to enacting meaningful change. It is easy to be discouraged by the array of preemption bills that moved swiftly throughout this session’s legislature, but we must take it as proof that voting and democracy at the community level is perceived as powerful (and dangerous) by our state government. Most Montanans are concerned about their climate, and it is most evident at the local level, which poses a threat to the state legislators attempting to pass harmful environmental bills. 

Looking forward, federal funds from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are available for projects at the state and local level that will help transition us to a clean energy economy. Sierra Club estimates that these investments could create 9 million jobs and reduce carbon emissions 40% by 2030. The actions that communities are currently pursuing, including climate resilience plans, policy solutions, educational campaigns, and infrastructure investment, are all key components of Montana’s battle against climate change. It is important moving forward that we ensure that a portion of these funds are made accessible to local communities in Montana, providing citizens and governments with the ability to continue pursuing climate action at the community level.