Montana is home to one of the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases in the nation. The coal-fired power plant at Colstrip is by far the largest industrial source of greenhouse gases in Montana, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Nevertheless, thanks to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Montana was finally on its way to charting a course for cleaner energy. In the past few years the state had put together a blueprint of sorts for complying with the plan, and earlier this year Gov. Steve Bullock announced the members of a 27-member advisory council charged with making recommendations on how to cut carbon pollution in the most environmentally effective, least economically damaging way possible.
Then the Clean Power Plan got tangled up in the courts, coal began a steady global collapse and Montana’s leaders seemingly abandoned efforts to help mitigate climate change in order to focus their attention on saving the Colstrip power plant.
Montana’s state and federal leaders have been spending a great deal of time talking about how to keep Colstrip viable. Bullock is even taking steps to put together a working group addressing Colstrip’s future.
They are taking this train in the wrong direction. Regardless of how the Clean Power Plan plays out in court, Montana must get back on track. It must not commit public resources to propping up an industry that damages public health. Montanans must remind our governor and congressional delegates that the state still needs to plan for a future that includes a strong, diversified energy industry, good-paying jobs and most of all, clean air.
There’s no reason to delay, and every reason to move forward with urgency. Montanans’ health depends on it.
Just this month, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released a new report that links the effects of climate change with public health, and noted that if things don’t change, Montana can expect to see more drought, soil erosion and dust activity, for instance. The report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment,” connects these outcomes to human activities including agriculture, livestock grazing, irrigation and the like.
It also, of course, notes that Montana can expect more wildfires and more smoke – and therefore, poorer air quality.
In Missoula and Ravalli counties, poor air quality is particularly concerning. Although Missoula has made some headway thanks to local standards, it is still losing ground and its air quality continues to receive the poorest possible grade from the American Lung Association.
The American Lung Association will be releasing its annual State of the Air report later this month. Last year’s report, which studied the years 2011-2013, showed that hotter, drier summers – with their more frequent, more intense wildfires – were responsible for increased particle pollution in places like Missoula and Ravalli counties. In Missoula County, for example, 86 percent of the poor air quality days were directly attributed to wildfire smoke.
Consequently, Missoulians can expect to see more cases of chronic illness and respiratory disease. Children and the elderly, pregnant women, and people with heart or lung disease are especially vulnerable. Climate change is even extending the allergy season, including more – and more potent – airborne allergens.
County-level air quality standards are effective, but they can only go so far. Montana must join the national push to mitigate wildfires by curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and it can accomplish this by dramatically reducing the use of coal as an energy source.
And then what? Montana must continue to hold a statewide discussion that focuses on replacing polluting energy sources with cleaner ones, making use of new energy technologies and training a workforce equipped to overcome the inevitable challenges of such a massive transition.
Recent polling data shows Montana residents want to do something about climate change, but are skeptical of the Clean Power Plan. A poll released last month by the University of Montana and Stanford University found that 54 percent of Montanans agree that climate change’s effect “pose a serious problem for the state.” And a whopping 71 percent would prefer to see the state “develop its own plan to reduce emissions” instead of allowing the federal government to call the shots.
Montanans can already see that climate change is costing us immensely, and we shouldn’t wait to begin taking steps to reduce that threat by implementing our own standards. Bullock ought to reconvene the Clean Power Plan advisory council, and direct the group to continue working on this issue.
The council should be given the support to continue to develop state-level solutions to the global problem of climate change.
Montanans may remain divided on the Clean Power Plan, whether to lend public support to propping up Colstrip and, if so, how far to go. Regardless of those divisions, it would be wise to keep in mind that we all breathe the same air.