Proposed initiative pushes for more renewable energy in Montana

By: 
CHARLIE DENISON
Senior Reporter
Tuesday, January 21, 2020
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Russ Doty is the creator of Initiative I-187 and founder of MT CARES.

Photo courtesy of Russ Doty

 

There is a push for cleaner energy making its way around the state, as some local community members are encouraging others to join them in signing Initiative 187, which has an ambitious goal of getting Montana to at least 80 percent renewable energy by 2034 while lowering energy bills, protecting workers and increasing personal liberties.

Too good to be true? Not according to Russ Doty, the creator and organizer behind I-187 and founder of nonprofit Montana Community Affordable Renewable Energy Saves. It is the goal of MTCares to get 25,468 approved signatures. If the goal is accomplished, I-187 will appear on the ballot for the November 2020 election. As of press time, I-187 has received around 34 percent of the needed signatures. The deadline for all approved signatures is June 19.

According to Doty, there are many reasons to bring this initiative forward. Wind and solar energy, he said, are both cheaper than electricity derived from coal or most natural gas, and they are also a safer, healthier alternative.

“Burning natural gas and coal releases tons of carbon dioxide into our air,” Doty wrote on the I-187 website. “Breathing it is bad for our bodies and bad for our climate. You wouldn’t want to breathe from the exhaust pipe of your car, would you? That’s akin to what we’re doing every day as we continue to burn fossil fuels.”

Renewable energy sources, Doty argues, are healthy alternatives that “let you depend on the roof of your home instead of a national corporation.”

“Renewable energy means more self-reliance, lower bills and greater freedom,” he writes.

I-187 essentially works as a replacement tax.

“We are already being taxed for coal, but as coal use dwindles, that tax revenue goes away,” he said.

According to the initiative, “savings from reduction in fossil-fuel cost, because there is no fuel cost in the sun and wind, is estimated to outpace electricity production taxes, replacing coal taxes, royalties and providing worker protection revenues.”

Doty said I-187 also works toward funding worker retraining, pension security, apprenticeships and coal-impacted community assistance by placing a $.0004 kWh tax on all energy produced.

“I-187 provides up to two years of job retraining and enhanced unemployment compensation benefits to help so fossil fuel workers do not lose their homes or family security during the transition,” he said. 

Similar initiatives have been written in the past, but Doty said he has reason to be optimistic this time around, as many volunteers are coming out of the woodwork to spread the word and gather signatures. 

“Most of the folks that are collecting signatures are retirees,” he said. “They have time to do it and they have the dedication. They don’t want to leave their children and their grandchildren with a future they can’t fix.”

Doty is relieved to see this kind of enthusiasm for the initiative. He believes the excitement is partly because people are more aware of climate issues and partly because people are more aware that green electricity is cheaper. All of this combined also adds to the sense of urgency, Doty said, which can’t be understated. If climate issues persist, he said, thousands of Montanans could be out of work in both the agricultural and tourism industries.

There are many variables involved with I-187 and some critical changes it hopes to implement. If it gets on the ballot and passes, it will prohibit Montana’s primary utility companies (NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities) from raising rates by more than two percent annually. 

NorthWestern Energy Public Relations Specialist Jo Dee Black did not seem too concerned about the initiative, as she said it is NorthWestern’s understanding that “because I-187 includes multiple issues, it does not meet the parameters of Montana law, which states that an initiative must include a single issue.”

In response, Doty said, “the single subject rule does not apply when an initiative or any other law is a general revision of law.”

Doty added he expected such a response from NorthWestern Energy because he believes they want to continue selling natural gas “when it’s not needed, as clean energy is cheaper.”

Black said, however, that NorthWestern is making an effort to work with more renewable energy, as NorthWestern is “more than 60% carbon free, two times more than the total U.S. electric power industry, which is 28% carbon free.”

“We continue to add to our Montana portfolio,” she said. “For example, another 80 megawatts of wind will be added soon as a new wind farm is complete.” 

Regarding the “single subject” debate, Black added, “as with any question about the interpretation of a Montana statute, this will ultimately be decided by the proper state authority.”

 

The inevitability of renewable energy

Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci – although not in complete opposition to the bill – questioned its necessity.

“We are already on track for this,” he said. “All we are hearing about are new wind and solar projects. There are no new coal plants. All I have in front of me is green energy.”

Pinocci said he is encouraged by the multitude of wind and solar projects and hopes to see Montana become more of an energy producer, as that’s what the state needs.

“I see a tremendous opportunity for solar energy here,” Pinocci said, “and the more energy we produce, the cheaper the rates.”

Pinocci said Montana has power lines that can be used to potentially ship the energy out of state.

It’s no secret that renewable energy is the future, Pinocci added. 

“The future is electronic cars and electronic tractors,” he said. “In the next 25 years there will be more electric cars than gas-powered cars.”

This being the case, Pinocci said he doesn’t see how someone could oppose Initiative I-187.

“How could you oppose it?” he said. “The only way you could oppose it is if you are building a new coal plant.”

For more information on I-187, go to www.mtcares.org.

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